Do Ya Rock Hard or Rock Soft, That's What I Wanna Know
July 24, 2015 10:13 PM   Subscribe

Do you like your jazz to be Norah Jones or Ornette Coleman, your classical music to be Bach or Stravinsky, or your rock to be Coldplay or Slayer? The answer could give an insight into the way you think, say researchers from the University of Cambridge. Forget the eyes, music is the window into the soul.
posted by moonlily (51 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
“Although people’s music choices fluctuates over time, we’ve discovered a person’s empathy levels and thinking style predicts what kind of music they like,” said David Greenberg from the Department of Psychology. “In fact, their cognitive style – whether they’re strong on empathy or strong on systems – can be a better predictor of what music they like than their personality.”

I guess I'm damned to lacking empathy until they come up with better "soft" options than Coldplay and Nora Jones.
posted by philip-random at 10:38 PM on July 24, 2015 [12 favorites]


Ornette? Check! Stravinsky? Check! Slayer? Uh,.... Can we go back to Rufus?
posted by cleroy at 10:47 PM on July 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


I was reading this the other day and it seemed way too focused on putting people into one category or the other. You're a this or a that. I don't know why people love binary relationships so much but not everything works that way. And it's kinda weird to force it.
posted by downtohisturtles at 10:47 PM on July 24, 2015 [18 favorites]


And if you like "God Save the Queen" AND "All of Me"? I flatter myself that I'm unclassifiable, though that's almost certainly untrue.
posted by blucevalo at 10:47 PM on July 24, 2015 [6 favorites]


How does this account for context though? I love all sorts of fast, slow, complex, and minimal music, but they all have their proper time and place depending on how awake I am, whether I'm multi-tasking, if there are other people around, etc, etc..

Interesting ideas, but it seems problematic to use music as a barometer when some people devote their whole lives to exploring music, and others can barely be bothered to buy a single album. I wonder if their study works better on the former or the latter.
posted by p3t3 at 10:50 PM on July 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


I don't know why people love binary relationships so much but not everything works that way.

I think basically there are 10 types of people...
posted by MoonOrb at 10:54 PM on July 24, 2015 [27 favorites]


In contrast, people who scored high on systemizing favoured intense music, but disliked mellow and unpretentious musical styles.

Are you calling me pretentious?

This is why we can't have nice things and get dystopian YA instead.

How did they decide that empathy and systematic thinking are two opposite poles? Are you someone who carries house keys and a wallet, or someone who carries a cellphone and wears glasses?
posted by bleep at 10:56 PM on July 24, 2015 [23 favorites]


Are empathising and systemizing really two sides of the same coin? Or are they more usefully considered as unique executive functions? TFA only really posits Baron-Cohen's thesis as settled fact, ignoring criticisms of his thought, and then jumps to conclusions. I wonder if there may be untenable steps being skipped over along the way. /$.02

On preview: O slow, systematic cellphone, how I fail to empathize with your struggle to keep up with 2015. Or: jinx bleep!
posted by riverlife at 11:15 PM on July 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


"This line of research highlights how music is a mirror of the self. "

Studies have shown that a quick review of a person's 'CD collection' or 'playlists' can be used to distinguish between those who wear black on the outside because black is how they feel on the inside, and those who simply feel that dark colours are 'flattering'.
posted by betweenthebars at 11:17 PM on July 24, 2015 [14 favorites]


Hell, folk, singer-songwriter, and country are all kinds of pretentious. How many of those people in cowboy hats ever roped a cow?
posted by idiopath at 11:32 PM on July 24, 2015 [6 favorites]


What if you like Steve Reich's "Music For 18 Musicians" followed by a shuffle of ABBA hits and deep cuts followed by Jethro Tull's "Thick As A Brick" followed by the U2 album that was given to everyone against their will followed by Simon & Garfunkel's "Bookends" followed by a mix of the current pop hit videos served up by Vimeo followed by a documentary about the 80 year history of the Count Basie Orchestra?

I mean... why the fuck does any of this have to do with anything?
posted by hippybear at 11:36 PM on July 24, 2015 [9 favorites]


I think basically there are 10 types of people...

actually there are 49. You may wish to subscribe to my newsletter.
posted by philip-random at 11:49 PM on July 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


Guys, you might want to read the link first:

The researchers conducted multiple studies with over 4,000 participants, who were recruited mainly through the myPersonality Facebook app.

We are clearly too cool for this research.
posted by Dr Dracator at 11:58 PM on July 24, 2015 [8 favorites]


I read this carefully, then thought about the people I know and their musical tastes. One sister-in-law whom I would describe as cold and empathy-challenged loves slow, sad folky tunes, whereas another who is gentle, warm and friendly adores vintage speed metal. As usual the world's need to stuff everyone into boxes for marketing purposes leaves me baffled and annoyed.
posted by kinnakeet at 12:02 AM on July 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


METAFILTER: We are clearly too cool for this research.
posted by philip-random at 12:08 AM on July 25, 2015 [13 favorites]


The empathic-systemizing spectrum is just an abstract model proposed for human cognition. Your position along it could plausibly change depending on the immediate situation or task. Correlation to one's musical preference may oppose the direction of the tendency measured in this research. Just because there are exceptions to a trend doesn't mean a general trend doesn't exist.

There is plenty of prior relevant research. Several months ago Mefi had the post on how applying an agent/people-context allows certain people to solve spatial perspective puzzles faster (but intriguingly doesn't help certain other people, as differentiated by their score on a certain cognitive test as I recall).

The point isn't to bucketize the human condition. That's not the end goal at all. The end goal is to understand human intelligence and cognition, and the exercise is to construct simple model reductions that can shed some light as science progresses step by step. It's all very interesting ongoing stuff just to read about occasionally.
posted by polymodus at 12:22 AM on July 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


people who are extraverted and ‘agreeable’ tend to prefer music from the pop, soundtrack, religious, soul, funk, electronic, and dance genres.

Yeah, you know what it's like when you meet a really fun, really friendly person, and they're all "have you heard the soundtrack to Remains of the Day," and you're like "get out of here, I love Richard Robbins!"
posted by teponaztli at 12:24 AM on July 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


This reminds me of that movie, Roger and me, where that stylist categorizes his colors as a season: spring, summer, autumn, winter... But then messes up and gets it wrong.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 1:04 AM on July 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


roy ayers is not on this list and i thus declare it wholly invalid
posted by poffin boffin at 1:14 AM on July 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


also Peter Hammill
posted by philip-random at 1:23 AM on July 25, 2015


I think they might be right about the correlation between mellow music and empathy, and intense music and systemicism. But I don't think it's true that people who are empathetic can't be systematic, and vice versa. I think both empathy and systemising ability increase with improved brain function. I think the reason people who prefer systemising modes of thought seem to lack empathy is that they suppress it, since being too empathetic can bring unwelcome and unpleasant feelings. E.g. if you are particularly intelligent (good at systematic tasks), others may find this alienating, and you might become a target for envy or ridicule, and therefore you might find you don't enjoy socialising as much, since you aren't accepted as much by others.
posted by rubber duck at 1:52 AM on July 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


Baron-Cohen's influence on the field is toxic. I'm certain there are researchers in Cambridge (since I live here and am sort of peripherally involved) who would be doing good work a lot more publicly if not for working in a field where SBC and his wrongheaded convictions totally dominate. signed, an autistic person.
posted by lokta at 3:18 AM on July 25, 2015 [6 favorites]


I mean: a lot of people would have dropped the empathizing/systematizing false dichotomy long ago but have to keep working under the shadow of The Leader In Their Field. I have a lot of faith in researchers, who are intelligent and curious, and the situation in this city and consequently this field globally really gets me as unjust.
posted by lokta at 3:21 AM on July 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


rubber duck has a good point - empathy as measured by SBC style assessments does increase with intelligence. This obviously doesn't mean that my learning disabled friends are less empathetic in their real lives than people without any learning disability. The tests designed to "measure" empathy are skewed against people who a) don't intellectualize their practice of empathy and b) are "less able" to "understand" the complicated, politicking, dissembling ways of neurotypical people with fixed views and assumptions about How People Behave that don't have actual basis in reality. Holy god I have a lot of feelings about this. And I miss those friends.
posted by lokta at 3:28 AM on July 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


*puts on Walking on Sunshine, air guitars around thread*
posted by jonmc at 4:47 AM on July 25, 2015


You're a this or a that. I don't know why people love binary relationships so much

In this case it probably has more to do with the statistical methods that psychologists are comfortable with. Most recently trained psych researchers have been taught some multivariate statistics but then proceed to not use them. They learn regression but use 2 way ANOVAs anyways.
posted by srboisvert at 5:12 AM on July 25, 2015


ITT: highly systematizing people going NO WAY

Actually me too.

I have explained to family and friends that the reason I don't like certain types of songs or certain types of books is that I feel no connection with the creator's preoccupations. I really am unempathetic. "Mellow and unpretentious" music often relies on, as its strong point, the articulation of feelings and experiences that I have little interest in, and so the music bores me deeply and sometimes even annoys me.

But I'm not an unempathetic person. Sometimes I am very empathetic. I'm often the first to defend someone by putting myself in their shoes, for example. I dislike being around people who are mean and judgmental towards others. And so on.

Being empathetic is not one-dimensional.

And my taste in music would probably break this survey anyway.

Anyway, it looks like Wikipedia has an article on E-S theory that explains some of the criticisms of it - although not as in detail as I would like. It is a theory that is deeply tied to claims of biological sex differences along the E-S continuum (and is a darling of evolutionary psychology). This is the same theory that is behind the "extreme male brain" explanation of autism, which some of our female autistic members had very harsh words toward in that other thread.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 5:21 AM on July 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


Once again, I am eclectic. A true empathetic systemizer.

According to Scientism truthiness.
posted by clvrmnky at 5:40 AM on July 25, 2015


Systematic in the streets, empathetic in the sheets.
posted by jscalzi at 6:05 AM on July 25, 2015 [20 favorites]


Okay, I'm going off on a tangent here, but I REJECT NORAH JONES AND ALL HER WORKS.

Why? When her debut album came out, I was living in Boulder, Colorado, and the only radio station that Mrs. Example and I could reliably tune in on our cheap little alarm clock radio was KBCO. KBCO played exactly the kind of inoffensive soft-rock, Whole-Foods-shopper, "Is this cruelty-free kale?" type of music that you would expect, so Norah Jones was right up their alley.

Can you imagine how soul-crushingly hard it was for two night people like ourselves to try to wake up at six in the goddamned morning to the soporific strains of "Don't Know Why"? ANATHEMA UPON YOU, NORAH JONES, AND YOUR SERVANT UPON THIS EARTH, KBCO.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 6:20 AM on July 25, 2015 [7 favorites]


So has Norah Jones ever covered Sonny and Cher? Just asking.
posted by maudlin at 6:59 AM on July 25, 2015


Hmmm. My favorites include The Clash, Tower of Power, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Hartman, Miles Davis, Schubert, Rossini, Verdi and Puccini. Not sure where tha puts me.
posted by slkinsey at 7:04 AM on July 25, 2015


There are two types of people: those who believe in false dichotomies and those who do not. I am the type who does not.
posted by Cookiebastard at 7:33 AM on July 25, 2015 [8 favorites]


I'm having trouble working out what the opposite of systemizing really might be. Which is to say, I thought that pattern-matching and causative construction are things that takes place in all human cognition. And to go a little further: isn't empathy itself a side effect of successfully systemizing someone else's behavior?
posted by Andrhia at 7:59 AM on July 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Rule of thumb: If you click a link and see "Cambridge," "empathizer," and "systematizer" in short order, it's pretty much guaranteed that Simon Baron-Cohen and his Extreme Asshole Brain will be lurking nearby in the underbrush.
posted by FelliniBlank at 8:03 AM on July 25, 2015 [5 favorites]


They say I lack empathy, but I don't give a shit what they think.
posted by double block and bleed at 8:20 AM on July 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


If there's one thing I hate more than books, it's "music". Music! It's nothing but a cacophony of NOISES, all piled up on one another like a pyramid of warty toads. And what are noises anyway, but manic vibrations of particles of air? Why people voluntarily subject themselves to this vibrating atmospheric phenomenon is an utter mystery to right-thinking persons such as I. One recalls the words of the great Italian poet, who criticised so-called music as "naught but a breath of wind, which now comes this way and now comes that, and changes name because it changes quarter". Of course, poetry itself is a disgusting and unwholesome practice which should be thoroughly banned, but it least it isn't music. I'm sure all MeFites will agree with me on this point and will be gladdened to hear my opinion on this matter. I thank you for your time and attention.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 10:03 AM on July 25, 2015 [6 favorites]


I like both Norah Jones and, like, the Die Like a Dog Quartet (and Ornette, but we can push that example further). Hell, I would like to see the Die Like a Dog Quartet reunite to do an album with Norah Jones. I would like that a lot. Multitudes, etc. Not that anybody asked about my jazz-listening preferences.
posted by box at 10:25 AM on July 25, 2015


I'd like that Norah Jones.
posted by philip-random at 10:26 AM on July 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Bach versus Stravinsky baffles me. Is Bach supposed to be the "soft" option? Ain't no one more systemizing than Bach.
posted by aws17576 at 11:28 AM on July 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


Rule of thumb: If you click a link and see "Cambridge," "empathizer," and "systematizer" in short order, it's pretty much guaranteed that Simon Baron-Cohen and his Extreme Asshole Brain will be lurking nearby in the underbrush.

If there is some sort of research feud situation going on, it would be more informative for the general audience to provide reference to the other views, instead of rely on character assassination to make a point.
posted by polymodus at 11:29 AM on July 25, 2015


*puts on Walking on Sunshine, air guitars around thread*

I don't think you're allowed to air guitar to that song. Try "Back in Black", you'll probably get better results.
posted by MikeMc at 11:59 AM on July 25, 2015


If there is some sort of research feud situation going on, it would be more informative for the general audience to provide reference to the other views, instead of rely on character assassination to make a point.

Sorry, I meant that as more of a dig at the "Aspies are Assholes" implications of Baron-Cohen's theories -- that "male brains" are naturally less empathetic than "female brains" and that neurodivergent brains are basically super-duper empathy-free zones -- than at B-C himself, but I will confess to, yes, being a tad resentful of someone whose work (unintentionally, I'm sure) helps to perpetuate damaging stereotypes, binary gender roles, etc.

The fact that someone might have difficulty reading body language or other behavioral cues doesn't mean they can't identify with the psychological state behind those cues. The fact that they may not always articulate, identify, describe, express, exhibit, or perform empathy in a way that neurotypical social convention recognizes, accepts, or approves of also doesn't mean they can't step into another person's emotional shoes. Now that I realize that my earlier remark sounded like a personal slam, I totally get that if I were Simon Baron-Cohen, it would be hurtful to read it, and I feel actual hurt on his behalf and regret on mine. But he doesn't believe people like me can experience that.
posted by FelliniBlank at 2:21 PM on July 25, 2015 [6 favorites]


I worry about the criteria used for categorising the music in the first place. What are the criteria by which we say that Coldplay and Bach are more similar than Jones and Stravinsky? I'm not saying it's impossible to come up with good categorisations, but they are hugely culturally loaded, and the assumptions of the researchers seem likely to be highly problematic.

Also, to what extent are we enculturated to identify as liking music that projects a socially approved model of ourselves? Where does the preference come from? A relationship with brain type or an attempt to form a coherent identity? How does the study account for this?

I've not read the paper, but it seems to me like there are huge, potentially insurmountable, difficulties to be overcome in terms of study design.
posted by howfar at 3:57 PM on July 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


All three of my boys are autistic. I never bought into the idea that people on the spectrum lack empathy. My boys are genuinely contrite when they discover that they've hurt someone else's feelings. The trouble often lies in making themselves aware. In fact, it's a double-whammy for them because feel the additional embarrassment that they were oblivious. They're not sociopaths who don't care. They sometimes don't know.

All three like soft music, so you can make of that what you will.
posted by double block and bleed at 1:33 AM on July 26, 2015


My boys are genuinely contrite when they discover that they've hurt someone else's feelings.

They sound like lovely gentlemen; please give them my warm and sincere regards.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 2:23 AM on July 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


I am glad to see that there is some pushback and additional context on this because man, it reeks of 'just-so' sexism:
-All of the high empathy singers listed in the release are either female or have a fanbase that is likely to be heavily female
-All of the high systematic singers are male, period.
-All of the researchers involved are male.
-The quotes in the article say that systemizers prefer sophisticated music with high depth and complexity while empathizers prefer things gentle and warm.

That is as subtle as a fucking brick wall.

I suppose it's worth noting that the researchers addressed this criticism in the paper (they claim that the results are independent of sex). Nonetheless, questions of researcher bias should remain.
posted by librarylis at 2:21 PM on July 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


That's because empathizing-systemizing has always been "men are from Mars and women are from Venus" dressed up in neuro clothing. Go read Baron-Cohen's The Essential Difference (or really any of his papers) if you want to see this in action. I wouldn't think twice about it except that, as FelliniBlank and lokta say, his work has determined the course of research on autism for the past few decades. (This is why some of us are so angry about what is indeed just an abstract model for human cognition. It's one that has made diagnosis and treatment very difficult for autistic women and men who don't fit Baron-Cohen's profile.)
posted by thetortoise at 2:35 PM on July 26, 2015 [5 favorites]


It's one that has made diagnosis and treatment very difficult for autistic women and men who don't fit Baron-Cohen's profile.

Why is that the fault of a Cambridge professor? His ongoing work has been scientific in nature which is about building theories and verifying them through hypothesis and experimentation. Does he in fact make claims about diagnosis or treatment? Because if it's medical professionals who are trying to apply his work somehow, then it's their fault for overgeneralizing.

His general audience book is characterized as:

The inevitable charge that even discussing such issues encourages sexism is thrown straight back. Baron-Cohen says he would "weep with disappointment" if a reader concluded that all men have lower empathy or that all women have lower systemising skills. These are average men and average women under discussion.

So maybe it's people who were misinformed about or misread the scientific content of the book, because if he literally, explicitly says it's not about "Venus versus Mars" and yet that's the take away some people have, maybe the book is just misunderstood. It's not the first time people have read scientific arguments and understood them incorrectly; it happens throughout science. If people are going to suggest the book reinforces a concept when it has literally said it doesn't, it would be fair to provide an excerpt or analysis that shows such a contradiction.
posted by polymodus at 10:55 PM on July 28, 2015


polymodus, here's all the explanation I've got. Bear in mind I am no kind of scientist or academic, just a person with Asperger's typing a lot of stuff on her phone, so mistakes here are mine alone. I would encourage anyone to seek out criticism of empathizing-systemizing and "extreme male brain" theory for themselves.

As the director of the Autism Research Centre and a psychologist, Simon Baron-Cohen has indeed authored diagnostic tools for autism to be used in clinical practice. Here's a list of assessments developed by the ARC. None are supposed to be strictly diagnostic if administered in isolation, but Baron-Cohen has endorsed the use of several for autism/Asperger screening.

The Adult Asperger Assessment in particular was a standard screening tool as of very recently (changes to the DSM may mean it gets phased out, but the clinical psychologists I went to in 2014 were still using it). It includes both the Autism Spectrum Quotient and the Empathy Quotient. The latter is essentially the same EQ devised for empathizing-systemizing research. A high score on the EQ can indicate the subject is not autistic, so the AAA in part works to screen out empathizers: "female brains," in Baron-Cohen's terminology.

As for Baron-Cohen's "essential difference" between the brains of men and women, it has been criticized by a number of scholars, but the most prominent example of this criticism has to be Cordelia Fine's book Delusions of Gender (note that Fine, herself an academic psychologist of no mean reputation, does get into the science at length elsewhere):
Fast-forward 200 years, turn to the opening page of The Essential Difference, a highly influential twenty-first-century book about the psychology of men and women, and there you will find Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen expressing much the same idea: ‘The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard- wired for understanding and building systems.’ Just like Gisborne, Baron-Cohen thinks that it is those with the ‘male brain’ who make the best scientists, engineers, bankers and lawyers, thanks to their capacity to focus in on different aspects of a system (be it a biological, physical, financial or legal system), and their drive to understand how it works. And the soothing reassurance that women, too, have their own special talents remains present and correct. In what has been described as a ‘masterpiece of condescension’, Baron-Cohen explains that the female brain’s propensity for understanding others’ thoughts and feelings, and responding to them sympathetically, ideally suits it to occupations that professionalise women’s traditional caring roles: ‘People with the female brain make the most wonderful counsellors, primary-school teachers, nurses, carers, therapists, social workers, mediators, group facilitators or personnel staff.’ Philosopher Neil Levy’s neat summary of Baron-Cohen’s thesis – that ‘on average, women’s intelligence is best employed in putting people at their ease, while the men get on with understanding the world and building and repairing the things we need in it’ – can’t help but bring to mind Gisborne’s eighteenth-century wife, busily unbending the brow of her learned husband.
(Baron-Cohen, as you might have guessed, didn't like her book. Here's Fine's response.)

Here's an article on criticism of the "extreme main brain" theory. There's been more than a trickle.

And some fun for the humanists: a chock-full-o-theory paper on the gendering of autism.

(I hope this post isn't too long or off-topic. Mods, I'm sorry if I'm making your night more difficult.)
posted by thetortoise at 2:27 AM on July 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


I would encourage anyone to seek out criticism of empathizing-systemizing and "extreme male brain" theory for themselves.

Well then I would encourage anyone who levels criticism at scientific work to formulate the essential critique in a way that is supported by reason and evidence. When someone reads a comment like "That's because empathizing-systemizing has always been "men are from Mars and women are from Venus" when the subject literally stated the opposite in an interview, you have to wonder about the logical consistency of such criticism.

Similarly when Fine says,

Fast-forward 200 years, … you will find Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen expressing much the same … ‘The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for … The male brain is predominantly hard- wired for…’ Just like Gisborne, Baron-Cohen thinks that it is those with the ‘male brain’ who make the best scientists, engineers, … thanks to their capacity … and their drive.

There is a logical disconnect between the criticized scientist's description in the first sentence and the prescription and interpretation in the mind of Fine. Even if Simon Baron-Cohen is dead wrong or causing harm (which again, is possible but such an accusation had better have really good evidence and high quality reasoning), Fine's reasoning in this specific instance is symptomatic of sloppy critique that just adds noise to what is obviously an academic feud. Anyone well-versed in the rhetoric of criticism should be able to see the logical gap that Fine commits in this excerpt. Bad faith reading is a thing and academics are not immune to it.
posted by polymodus at 1:22 PM on July 29, 2015


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