A new study led by University of Westminster psychologist Viren Swami puts metalheads under the microscope again — and finds, refreshingly, some surprising results. I’m reluctant to analyze it much because the full study is paywalled, but the jist is that they took more than 400 Brits and had them listen to “clips of 10 tracks of contemporary heavy metal,” asked them what they thought of the music, and then gave them a questionnaire meant to test them for the “Big Five” personality traits: Extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness to new experiences.
There are a few additional details in this (unnecessarily sexist) writeup from Pacific Standard, including the fact that the study included 219 women and 195 men. Here’s their quick-and-dirty explanation of the findings:
Matching music preference to the Big Five personality traits, Swami was not surprised to find “openness to experience” was associated with enjoyment of heavy metal. People who embrace the new and different tend to be “drawn to forms of music that are intense, engaging and challenging,” he notes, “of which heavy metal is but one example.”
Those with a strong preference for metal “were also more likely to have lower self-esteem,” the researchers write. They speculate this style of music “allows for a purge of negative feelings,” producing a catharsis that may “help boost self-worth.”
Appreciation for metal was also associated with a higher-than-average need for uniqueness, and lower-than-average levels of religiosity. “It is possible that this association is driven by underlying attitudes towards authority, which may include religious authorities,” they write.
Trying to draw correlations between personality traits and musical preferences — particularly when studying people who are outside of that musical culture — is tricky business. I would loosely agree with the suggestion that people who are more open to new experiences would be into extreme music, but it could also be said that people who prefer things to be very structured and regimented would like metal, because the genre — prog and “math metal” in particular — offer that kind of structure. Likewise, it’s a safe guess to say that folks with lower self-esteem might be drawn to metal because its lyrics often offer messages of catharsis and empowerment. But the culture, as well as the music, offers a support network for misfits, and that can’t be ignored.
Lastly, the topic of metal and religiosity is a sticky one (and one I touch on briefly in The Columbine Effect; does it have to do with attitudes toward authority, as the researcher suggests? Others have theorized that people who belong to one of the dominant faiths are less likely to be tolerant of metal because of how the culture and iconography toys with religious criticism, pagan and Satanic themes, and blasphemy. But then again, there’s the argument that metal is a kind of religion.
It’s tough to say what the value of studies like this are. To overcome the stigma and biases against heavy metal and its fans? Others — such as filmmaker Sam Dunn — are arguably more effective. I’d rather see a deep, longitudinal study of longtime metal fans, starting when they picked up their first Black Sabbath or Metallica CD and following them until they’re in nursing homes. I’m happy that studies show not all metalheads are delinquents, but you don’t need a study for that. Just talk to fans.