A friend invites you to his new apartment. As he cues up an old jazz record, you look around his cluttered room for somewhere to sit. Works of literature and philosophy are stacked waist-high next to the desk. Thumbtacks anchor a colorful Picasso print to the wall. His collection of foreign films and documentaries topples out of an unpacked box. His housemate’s digs—which you spy across the hall—are a different story: a framed Monet poster hangs over the neatly made bed; top-40 CD cases and box sets of TV sitcoms line the shelves; carefully arranged gossip magazines fill a nearby rack.

Without even meeting the roommate, you are willing to bet that these two won’t live together for long, and, in fact, you are probably right. An increasing number of psychological studies reveal strong associations between personality traits and aesthetic tastes. According to these investigations, the jazz aficionado—who prefers challenging books and abstract art—is more likely to be an extrovert and open to new experiences. The top-40 fan, on the other hand, probably shies away from novelty. Based on his fondness for Impressionist art, though, he is likely to be agreeable and conscientious.

Profiling of this sort is far from perfect. We all know the stereotype-busting slacker with highbrow hobbies or the scholar who loves soap operas and pop. Nevertheless, current research shows that we can, to a fair extent, judge a book’s reader by its cover: if you like challenges, chances are you will seek them out in the media you consume. If you are gregarious and social, you will probably gravitate toward songs, magazines and television shows in the public eye. And if you are highly emotional, you may turn to culture and art primarily for comfort or distraction. Indeed, our personalities—perhaps even more than our intelligence or education—hold tremendous sway over what we read, listen to and watch.

Ready for Something New?
Many studies that aim to trace our cultural proclivities back to personality track traits known as “the Big Five”: extroversion, openness, neuroticism, agreeableness and conscientiousness. How individuals score on these measures gives a broad-brush portrait of their nature. Are they reserved or social, a reflection of extroversion? Are they curious, indicating a high degree of openness, or more down-to-earth? Are they emotionally reactive, or neurotic, or not easily upset? Do they tend to be cooperative—meaning they are agreeable in temperament—or are they driven more by self-interest? Are they self-disciplined, a sign of conscientiousness, or more spontaneous in how they approach life?

Of all the Big Five traits, openness, in particular, seems to shape our fancies in the fine arts. In 2009 Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic of the University of London and his colleagues gathered data online from more than 90,000 people between the ages of 13 and 90—one of the largest such studies ever conducted. They asked respondents to rate how well they liked 24 paintings in four styles—Cubist, Renaissance, Impressionist and Japanese—and then to complete a Big Five questionnaire. Of interest, they found that only openness had a strong and consistent influence on artistic leanings: individuals who were open more often relished Cubist, Renaissance and Japanese images, whereas more conventional subjects—who typically score low in openness but high in agreeableness and conscientiousness—frequently favored Impressionist art.

Our reading material also tends to reflect our degree of cultural openness, according to Samuel D. Gosling of the University of Texas at Austin. In 2005 he asked test subjects to look around a room and then evaluate the person living there. His participants often inferred that spaces filled with newspapers, journals, CDs or books typically belonged to people open to new experiences. A better indicator proved to be the type, not just number, of media present. For instance, comics—as well as books about music and philosophy—revealed surprisingly little about the openness of their owners. News magazines, on the other hand, as well as books about art, poetry and psychology did more often belong to open personalities. More conservative individuals tended to possess joke collections and books about politics.

In 2004 psychologists Nicola Schutte and John Malouff of the University of New England in Armidale, Australia, surveyed 251 students and reported different associations between openness and reading preferences. Participants who scored high in openness on a Big Five inventory tended to be fond of classic literature and of the arts and culture sections of newspapers. Openness was also common among those who liked scientific books or magazines. A predilection for science writing was further linked to high levels of conscientiousness. In contrast, devotees of gossip magazines and romances scored lower than average in openness but above average in extroversion.

Dutch researchers Gerbert Kraaykamp of the University of Nijmegen and Koen van Eijck, now at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, added to these findings in 2005, surveying more than 3,000 subjects between the ages of 18 and 70. As expected, people who described themselves as open to new things were culturally more active, independent of age, sex or level of education, and their pursuits extended beyond high art—they frequently attended pop concerts and also liked movie thrillers and crime shows. Moreover, Kraaykamp discovered that open spirits typically shunned reading romances or watching soap operas. Instead such pastimes attracted subjects who characterized themselves as more emotional.

Because many of these studies have used Big Five inventories, they are readily comparable, and, for the most part, their findings converge: people who score high in neuroticism or agreeableness tend to prefer undemanding free-time activities, which are neither intellectually nor emotionally challenging. Open individuals typically crave more complex cultural offerings. Other analyses have considered how tastes relate to sensation seeking, a character trait first described by psychologist Marvin Zuckerman in the 1970s. As the name suggests, sensation seekers yearn for excitement, readily take risks and hunger for intense experiences. Sensation seeking is considered to be one aspect of openness. In 2001 Adrian Furnham of University College London and his colleagues reported that the more a person tended toward sensation seeking, the more he or she liked abstract art, pop art and surrealism, and the more he or she disliked representational painting.

The Beat of a Different Drum
Sensation seekers also have clear musical preferences. As Zuckerman reported some 25 years ago, they tend to enjoy rock or classical music, not film scores or hymns. More recent studies also support the idea that personality molds our musical tastes—so much so that an iTunes library of someone’s favorite songs can almost serve as a psychological calling card. In 2006 Gosling and Peter Jason Rentfrow of the University of Cambridge asked subjects to listen to 10 songs and then describe the person—a stranger—who chose them. They found that, using only these top-10 playlists, the participants could make accurate judgments about the stranger’s openness to new experiences, degree of extroversion and personal values.

A few years earlier, in 2003, Gosling and Rentfrow, who was also then at the University of Texas, surveyed the musical tastes of more than 3,500 students on campus. To make the study more manageable, they distilled countless musical styles into four broad categories and found that each one seemed to attract a distinct personality profile: intense or rebellious music—including rock and punk—drew in listeners who scored above average in openness. Fans of reflective or complex music tended to be both open and politically liberal. Dynamic/rhythmic music lured mainly extroverts, and upbeat/conventional tunes drew extroverts as well as agreeable, conscientious and politically more conservative listeners.

Marc Delsing and his colleagues at the University of Utrecht corroborated the results five years later. These researchers used data collected from a longitudinal study based on a survey completed by more than 2,000 Dutch teens between the ages of 12 and 19. Part of the survey asked about musical tastes; it excluded genres rarely heard in Holland—for example, folk, country, blues and soundtracks—but included other varieties such as hardcore, punk and goth. Despite the differences, Delsing identified more or less the same four clusters of musical preference and personality that Gosling and Rentfrow had described. He needed to reclassify only one style to make the fit: whereas the American sample put gospel music in the same category as pop, Delsing grouped it with jazz and classical music.

Because the survey interviewed the Dutch students over the course of three consecutive years, Delsing and his team could also consider the development of musical taste in light of personality. They discovered that young teens tended to change their preferences only slightly; as the kids got older, though, their opinions solidified. Extroverted teenagers often turned away from rock and punk with age, turning to pop and so-called urban styles. Of interest, the youth who listened to jazz and classical music often described themselves as emotionally unstable. In contrast, the college-age jazz and classical fans in Gosling’s sample did not score above average in measures of neuroticism. Delsing hypothesizes that it is a sign of emotional liability for adolescents to listen to more sophisticated music, whereas it is entirely normal for older students.

More recent studies have called Gosling and Rentfrow’s musical profiles into question. In 2008 psychologist Hasan G. Tekman of Uludag University in Bursa, Turkey, added a fifth musical style, Turkish folk music, to the mix. He found that Turkish folk fans typically scored high in agreeability, above average in conscientiousness and slightly above average in neuroticism. Furthermore, Tekman found very different associations between other musical styles and Big Five traits. For example, among the Turkish sample, people who liked reflective and complex styles of music were not generally open—as was the case in the American and Dutch samples. Also in 2008 a German survey of musical tastes among 422 students at the University of the Bundeswehr in Munich failed to match Gosling and Rentfrow’s results.

“The four dimensions they [Gosling and Rentfrow] established in their 2003 study provide a broad look at some of the relationships between music preferences and personality,” says Richard L. Zweigenhaft of Guilford College, but his own findings “indicate that it is important to examine specific music genres.” Among 83 students, he uncovered a number of statistically significant associations: radio listeners tended to be less fearful but also less orderly, dutiful or disciplined than average Americans; opera and heavy metal fans both tended to be disorderly; and those who liked rap and hip-hop claimed to lack self-discipline and sincerity but also described themselves as impulsive, open and sociable. And as with Delsing, Zweigenhaft showed that not all fans of religious music are alike.

Trills and Chills
As these studies show, not all aficionados are created equal, but many music fans have more in common than just a list of favorite songs. In 2007 Adrian C. North of Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh and David J. Hargreaves of Roehampton University in London surveyed more than 2,500 Britons between the ages of 18 and 60 about their choices in music and lifestyle. They found that lovers of musicals tended to lead exemplary lives: they avoided alcohol and drugs, obeyed laws and gave to charity. Connoisseurs of classical music, jazz, blues and opera were among the best educated in the sample, and hip-hop and dance-floor listeners were more prone to use drugs. In 2009 Juul Mulder of Utrecht and her colleagues mined similar patterns from a Dutch study of 7,000-plus teens: fans of punk, hardcore, techno and reggae used more drugs than fans of mainstream, pop or classical music. They only did so, though, if they had contact with other fans who used drugs.

Sensation seeking—a trait that is thought to be 50 percent inherited—may be the common denominator that links some music subcultures to recreational drugs. More conservative people simply do not need to take the same kinds of musical, or medical, risks to achieve the same emotional highs. Personality may also help explain why one song can move one person to get up and dance but not another. For the average listener, the regularity of pop suffices. Sensation seekers, however, might physically need more stimulation—in the form of a wailing guitar riff or powerful beat—to feel chills down their spine and tingling in their toes. By the same token, people who are open to new experiences may require more challenging melodies or complicated rhythms to get their groove on.

What exactly creates these musical highs? A number of scientists are exploring our emotional and physiological response to music. In 2009 neuropsychologist Valorie N. Salimpoor and her colleagues at McGill University asked 26 subjects to listen to two types of music, favorite pieces and songs toward which they felt neutral. As expected, the high feelings the participants experienced during favorite songs appeared to result from autonomic stimulation: moments of musical bliss were associated with increases in skin conductivity, respiratory rate and heart rate, as well as drops in blood pressure and body temperature. Similar responses did not occur when the participants listened to songs they did not especially like.

In 2005 neuroscientists Daniel J. Levitin, also at McGill, and Vinod Menon of Stanford University reported that musical enjoyment changes the activity in a neuronal network involved in other positive emotions. In particular, the ventral tegmental area, a collection of cells in the midbrain that are central to our reward circuitry, alters the interactions among three structures—the nucleus accumbens, the hypothalamus and the insula—that regulate autonomic arousal. In 2002 Eckart Altenmller, director of the Institute for Music Physiology at the University of Hannover in Germany, showed that musical enjoyment also coincides with greater activity in the left cortex—a region other studies have linked to positive emotions in general. He further found an association between negative feelings about music and increased firings in the right cortex.

Harmony—or at least a lack thereof—seems to account for some of our emotional response to music. In 1999 neuropsychologist Anne J. Blood, now at Harvard University, worked with her colleagues at McGill to compose six musical variations, ranging from harmonious to cacophonous, and played them for a group of 10 test subjects. The more dissonant the melody, the less the subjects liked it. Moreover, PET scans revealed that listening to dissonant tunes coincided with greater blood flow in certain regions of the right hemisphere. In another study, Blood showed that the thrill we get from a favorite song activates the same ventral limbic structures that are engaged when we eat chocolate.

To date, no studies have explored how we react biologically to art or music in light of personality or why we enjoy cultural productions in the first place. And researchers in this field are challenged by the fact that the arts are a moving target: what begins as cultural rebellion quickly becomes mainstream. The Rolling Stones and pop art may have gotten a rise from sensation seekers in the 1960s, but they probably would not pique a new generation of rebels raised on Lady Gaga and Damien Hirst. So the next time you go judging your friend’s new roommate, ask for his age: if that old pile of punk records in the corner belonged to his dad, he may not be up for lots of loud parties.