The Favorite Music of Psychopaths

A New York University study raises the question as to whether it's possible to identify an individual with psychopathic traits based on their musical preferences.
The Favorite Music of Psychopaths
Sergio De Dios González

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Last update: 18 September, 2023

A New York University study has dismantled the myth, fueled by movies like The Silence of the Lambs and A Clockwork Orange, about the relationship between psychopathy and classical music. In fact, it supports the hypothesis that psychopaths aren’t inclined toward any artist or musical genre. Instead, they show a preference for specific songs. The investigation gives us clues as to what these favorite songs could be.

The experiment compared the musical tastes of certain individuals with their scores on the Levenson Self-Report personality test. This is a widely accepted screening instrument for psychopathy. The researchers were surprised to discover that both factors may be more related than they previously thought.

A playlist of 260 songs

The research team gathered 200 volunteers from various ethnic and economic groups to listen to 260 songs. After the participants chose their favorites, the scientists considered their choices alongside their results on the well-known psychopathy scale.

However, we should mention that the study’s author, Pascal Wallisch, has warned that its conclusions may not be definitive. This is because the population sample was too small, he told The Guardian newspaper.

That said, although there are still many nuances to be addressed, this experiment could provide an effective and safe method of detecting psychopaths. Moreover, according to the author, it favors public safety, since it could prevent certain individuals from filling jobs where empathy is especially important. For example, the police, the military, and medical staff.

Blackstreet and Eminem: the favorite music of psychopaths

Wallisch didn’t reveal his full list of songs as he didn’t want to influence other investigations by making hasty conclusions. He did, however, make some of his findings known. The songs “No Diggity” by Blackstreet, and “Lose Yourself” by Eminem, were two of the most listened to in the studio. Therefore, these could be said to be clear examples of the favorite music of psychopaths.

On the other side of the coin were songs like “My Sharona”, by The Knack, and “Titanium” by Sia. These songs were least liked by those with psychopathic tendencies, according to Wallisch.

“There is not a strong association with a particular gender.”

-Pascal Wallisch-

The mind of the psychopath

This isn’t the first nor will it be the last study to try and increase the volume of valuable information about the mind of the psychopath. One such study was published in Personality and Individual Differences. It suggested a number of careers and studies are preferred by people who meet the three traits of the dark triad (narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism). According to this study, those minds approaching psychopathy have a strong tendency to study business or economics.

The study proved to motivation for the movie, American Psycho. In this film, the protagonist, played by Christian Bale, presents himself as a cold Wall Street investment banker.

Audiovisual products considerably influence the collective imagination. That said, the type of psychopaths they portray shouldn’t be taken literally. Indeed, the myth of classical music and the psychopath has now been debunked. The kind that was established by characters like Álex DeLarge, from A Clockwork Orange, and Hannibal Lecter, from The Silence of the Lambs. In fact, we now know that people with psychopathic tendencies have more specific musical tastes that don’t have to conform to any particular genre or artist.

The ethical problem

It seems that it’s not so easy to identify the favorite music of psychopaths. Although many studies shed light on this mental health aspect, ethics is an issue.

Indeed, as Wallisch himself warns, conducting this type of examination without the consent of participants could be controversial or even lack professional ethics.

That’s why it’s essential to establish rules and protocols when trying to unravel the mind of an individual, whether or not they’re a psychopath. Previous studies and concepts such as the dark triad are tools that can be helpful. That said, they shouldn’t become an excuse for researchers to fall victim to prejudice or hasty diagnoses.

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