How to Spot a Psychopath: Music Taste Can Offer Clues

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Was your ex who was completely obsessed with Eminem actually a psychopath? Probably not. But a recent study from New York University comparing people’s musical preferences with their scores on a personality test show that the two traits may be more closely linked than you’re comfortable believing.

Related: Psychopaths aren't just natural liars—they're just better at learning how to do it 

Psychopaths listen to a lot of the same music as the rest of us. According to this new study, Blackstreet’s "No Diggity" and Eminem’s "Lose Yourself" top the list for psychopaths’ favorite songs. On the other hand, those with the least psychopathic tendencies tended to like The Knack’s "My Sharona" and Sia’s "Titanium," The Guardian reported. However, psychologist Pascal Wallisch, who led the research, tells Newsweek that it's not so much the genre of music that matters to psychopaths but rather the specific song. 

Hall_09_26 (671562) Psychopaths seems to prefer certain types of songs. LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images

"There is no strong association between any particular genre," says Wallisch. "It's about the songs. It may be the simulation in the song. We don't know." 

Wallisch and his team had 200 volunteers listen to 260 songs and then pick their favorites. The volunteers were mostly young people and fairly educated, but they represented many ethnic and economic groups. The team then compared these results with the volunteers’ results on the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale, a widely accepted test of psychopathy. The results showed a common trend, suggesting that an individual’s personality could influence his or her musical preference.

But before you write off a potential date just because the person didn’t switch the radio station when a ’90s hip-hop song came on, consider some caveats to the research. Wallisch stresses to Newsweek that the study is preliminary and unpublished. He plans to present it this fall at the Society for Neuroscience Meeting. In addition, the findings are based on the answers of only 200 individuals who may not correctly represent the average public. Wallisch explains that this study is only the first of many, and he plans to use this method on even more volunteers.

Related: Can a child be a psychopath?

The ultimate aim of the research is to develop a way to accurately and easily identify psychopaths. According to Wallisch, such a method could be a matter of public safety because it could help prevent dangerous individuals from employment in jobs where they can cause harm, such as in the police force or other positions of power. 

But Wallisch also acknowledges that such screening, done without the knowledge of an applicant, is controversial. "It's complicated, and I'm very concerned about the ethical side of this."

The study adds to a growing body of research suggesting psychopaths do share a number of traits that you would not immediately associate with this personality. For example, a study released earlier this year published in Personality and Individual Differences found that individuals with the "dark triad" of personality traits (narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism) are more likely to study business and economics in college. Those with the least of these personality traits are more likely to study psychology.

Wallisch plans to build on this study and says he has identified other songs even more closely linked to psychopathic personalities. He's not ready to share these with the public yet for fear of compromising further research. For now, it may be best to take these results with a bit of skepticism and not let them disrupt your playlist choice too much.

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