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Sound conclusions: The psychology of musical preferences

Last week I was invited to give a keynote talk at an Italian conference on community psychology in Padova. The reason I mention this is because it was at this conference I met another academic – Dr. Tom Ter Bogt – that has a job that I would love to have. Dr. Ter Bogt is a Professor in Popular Music and Youth Culture at the Department of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences of Utrecht University. Regular readers of my blog will know that I have an obsessive love of music and have written about the psychology many of my musical heroes in previous blogs.

It all started when Dr. Ter Bogt innocently asked me what I thought of Noel Gallagher’s latest album (Chasing Yesterday). When I told him that I thought it was great, it sparked a long conversation where we discussed our eclectic love of music taking in a shared appreciation of Oasis, The Beatles, Throbbing Gristle, The Velvet UndergroundLou Reed, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, Grace Jones, Johnny Cash, and Chic (to name but a few). I also learned that he used to be a club DJ and that he had authored a best selling book on the history of pop music in his home country. In further email conversations, he also shared with me that his most played artists were Television and the Comsat Angels (something I would never have predicted based on out initial conversation but something that I found endearing).

In the nicest way possible, I am envious of Dr. Ter Bogt’s job. He has managed to become a professor through his love of music, and now carries out scientific research on the topic. Our respective research backgrounds – while very different – occasionally intersect. For instance, Dr. Ter Bogt and his colleagues published a paper in a 2002 issue of Contemporary Drug Problems on ‘Dancestasy’ (dance and MDMA use) in Dutch youth culture and I have published papers on both dance as an addiction, and young people’s use of ecstasy as a ‘risky but rewarding behaviour’ (see ‘Further reading below).

As an avid music fan I was interested to read Dr. Ter Bogt’s typology of music listeners in a 2010 paper in the journal Psychology of Music. In this study, Dr. Ter Bogt and his colleagues constructed a typology of music listeners based on the of importance attributed to music and four types of music use (among a sample of nearly a thousand Dutch participants): (i) mood enhancement (e.g., “Music helps me to relax and stop thinking about things”), (ii) coping with problems (e.g., “I always play music when I feel sad”), (iii) defining personal identity (e.g., “Lyrics of my music often express how I feel”), and (iv) social identity (e.g., “I can’t be friends with someone who dislikes my music”).

Using latent class analysis, the study’s participants were classed into three listener groups – High-Involved Listeners (HILs; 19.7% of the sample), Medium-Involved Listeners (MILs; 74.2%), and Low-Involved Listeners (LILs; 6.1%). HILs listened to music most often for mood enhancement, coping with distress, identity construction and social identity formation. MILs and LILs formed predictably attached less importance to music in their lives. HILs liked a wide range of musical genres (e.g., pop, rock, urban, dance, etc.) and experienced the most positive affects when listening to music. Interestingly, both HILs and MILs (when compared to LILs) reported more negative affects (such as anger and sadness) when listening to music. The study also reported that even LILs listened to music frequently and used it as a mood enhancer.

In a 2010 study in the Journal of Adolescence, Dr. Ter Bogt and his colleagues examined the association between music preferences and adolescent substance use. In a nationally representative sample of 7324 Dutch adolescents (aged 12–16 years), the study collected data concerning music preferences, substance use behaviors, and the perceived number of peers using substances. Adolescent music preferences for eight different music genres clustered into four distinct styles labeled as pop (chart music, Dutch pop), adult (classical music, jazz), urban (rap/hip-hop, soul/R&B) and hard (punk/hardcore, techno/hard-house). Adolescent substance use among the participants comprised smoking, drinking, and cannabis use. The results showed that music preference and substance use was either wholly or partially mediated by perceived peer use.

Using the same dataset, a study published in a 2009 issue of Substance Use and Misuse reported that when all other factors were controlled for, higher levels of substance use was more likely among those who liked punk/hardcore, techno/hard-house, and reggae while lower levels of substance use was more likely among those who preferred pop and classical music. According to Ter Bogt and his colleagues, prior empirical research had demonstrated that liking heavy metal and rap predicted substance use. The Dutch data in this study found that “a preference for rap/hip-hop only indicated elevated smoking among girls, whereas heavy metal was associated with less smoking among boys and less drinking among girls”. Consequently, it was concluded that the music genres associated with increased substance use “may vary historically and cross-culturally, but, in general, preferences for nonmainstream music are associated positively with substance use, and preferences for mainstream pop and types of music preferred by adults (classical music) mark less substance use among adolescents”. The authors also noted that the data were correlational therefore the direction of causation of the music–substance use link cannot be drawn.

In a more recent (2013) study published in the journal Pediatrics, Dr. Ter Bogt and colleagues examined the relationship between early adolescents’ musical preferences and minor delinquency. Following 309 adolescents (149 boys, 160 girls) from the age of 12 years over a four-year period, the study found that that early fans of different types of rock (e.g., rock, heavy metal, gothic, punk), African American music (rhythm and blues, hip-hop), and electronic dance music (trance, techno/hard-house) showed elevated minor delinquency both concurrently and longitudinally. Conversely, preferring conventional pop (chart pop) or highbrow music (classic music, jazz) was negatively related to minor delinquency. The study concluded that “early music preferences emerged as more powerful indicators of later delinquency rather than early delinquency, indicating that music choice is a strong marker of later problem behavior”.

On a personal level, I know how important music is in my on life and as a source of my own identity. The many studies carried out by Dr. Ter Bogt and his research colleagues further our understanding of music across the lifespan (particularly its role in adolescence) and I look forward to reading their future work.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Delsing, M. J., Ter Bogt, T. F., Engels, R. C., & Meeus, W. H. (2008). Adolescents’ music preferences and personality characteristics. European Journal of Personality, 22(2), 109-130.

Larkin, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Dangerous sports and recreational drug-use: Rationalising and contextualising risk. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 14, 215-232.

Maraz, A., Király, O., Urbán, R., Griffiths, M.D., Demetrovics, Z. (2015). Why do you dance? Development of the Dance Motivation Inventory (DMI). PLoS ONE, 10(3): e0122866. doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0122866

Maraz, A., Urbán, R., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics Z. (2015). An empirical investigation of dance addiction. PloS ONE, 10(5): e0125988. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0125988.

Mulder, J., Ter Bogt, T. F., Raaijmakers, Q. A., Gabhainn, S. N., Monshouwer, K., & Vollebergh, W. A. (2009). The soundtrack of substance use: music preference and adolescent smoking and drinking. Substance Use and Misuse, 44(4), 514-531.

Mulder, J., Ter Bogt, T. F., Raaijmakers, Q. A., Gabhainn, S. N., Monshouwer, K., & Vollebergh, W. A. (2010). Is it the music? Peer substance use as a mediator of the link between music preferences and adolescent substance use. Journal of Adolescence, 33, 387-394.

Mulder, J., Ter Bogt, T., Raaijmakers, Q., & Vollebergh, W. (2007). Music taste groups and problem behavior. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 36(3), 313-324.

Selfhout, M. H., Branje, S. J., ter Bogt, T. F., & Meeus, W. H. (2009). The role of music preferences in early adolescents’ friendship formation and stability. Journal of Adolescence, 32(1), 95-107.

Ter Bogt, T., Engels, R., Hibbel, B., Van Wel, F., & Verhagen, S. (2002). ‘Dancestasy’: Dance and MDMA use in Dutch youth culture. Contemporary Drug Problems, 29, 157–181.

Ter Bogt, T. F., Keijsers, L., & Meeus, W. H. (2013). Early adolescent music preferences and minor delinquency. Pediatrics, 131(2), e380-e389.

Ter Bogt, T.F., Mulder, J., Raaijmakers, Q.A., & Gabhainn, S.N. (2010). Moved by music: A typology of music listeners. Psychology of Music, 39, 147-163.

Elasticity of demand: Can bungee jumping be addictive?

“Aaaaaaaggggggghhhhhhh” – or something like it – was the sound I made as I jumped from 300 foot above the River Thames with a piece of elastic tied round my ankles in my one and only bungee-jump. Was I brave? No. Insane? No (although others may take issue). Stupid? Possibly. Was I doing it for a bet? No. To raise money for a charity? No. To have a story to tell the grandchildren? No (but I will have). At the end of the day, I really don’t know what possessed me to take that jump. But I did it. I have about a hundred eyewitnesses, the certificate, the photos, and of course the video of my jump (“Drastic Elastic”).

So how did it all come about? Well, it was one of those spur of the moment things. I was with my partner and some of her friends all of whom had congregated at Battersea Power Station to see one of their long-standing friends do a bungee-jump. The bungee-jump at Battersea as I later found out is the highest in the UK but as I sat drinking bottled lager on the riverside boat bar all I was wondering was why the bloody hell is he going to do it? He had a few weeks to think about it. Thankfully when it came to my jump, I had about half an hour for it to sink in. The only bottle I really had was the one I had been holding full of lager.

Before I went on my jump, a couple of radio journalists went up to do a report. A couple of my colleagues have suggested that it was only the presence of the broadcast media that got me to jump. One jumper who came down while I was waiting described it as the worst experience of his life. What a time to tell me! What’s more, the person before me chickened out when she got to the top. I must admit than when I was finally hoisted up to that birds-eye view over London, I did momentarily think there was still time to change my mind. The forms that I signed before going up were certainly food for thought. There is a phrase in the small print that basically says that in the event of my death or serious injury that I do not hold the UK Bungee Club personally responsible.

As the crane slowly ascended to the jump point my heart got a little faster but I was still looking forward to it. The crane suddenly stopped. The door of the cage opened and there I was standing over the Thames. In three seconds time I would be making my oscillating descent downwards. One of the guys in the crane said he would count to three and then tap me on the shoulder which was my cue to jump. The other guy was holding the camcorder recording my every grimace.

“One. Two. Three. Jump”. I dived off the cage’s platform and hurtled towards my friends in the boat below. I bounced up and down for about half a minute before I realised it was nearly over. The rush I got from the whole experience hit me straight after the jump rather than during it. The term “adrenaline junkie” has now passed into everyday usage and although my main research area concentrates on very specific types of risky behaviour (e.g., gambling) and others perceive me to be someone who generally takes risks, I would be the first to admit that bungee jumping is not something that has ever been one of my lifelong desires.

It is therefore something of an irony that one of my ex-PhD students (Dr. Michael Larkin) did his research on the relationship between addiction and identity and interviewed bungee-jumpers about their experiences and whether they view their high-risk behaviour as addictive (research that we eventually published in the Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology). I also realize that if I was interviewing myself about my experiences of bungee jumping I’d be hard pressed to give any kind of rational explanation of why I did it.

Large-scale research in the area of young people and risk-taking has tended to focus on ‘risk-takers’. This term clearly situates the ‘risky-ness’ within a particular kind of person, and captures only the negative aspect of such behaviours (i.e., risk). In our published research, Dr. Larkin and I purposefully used the term ‘risky-but-rewarding activities’ for two reasons. Firstly, the term situates ‘risky-ness’ within activities, rather than the persons engaging in them, and secondly, it captures both the positive and negative aspects of such activities (i.e., risk and reward).

In one of our studies, we used semi-structured interviews to explore the experiences and understandings of two small groups of participants engaging in either dangerous sports (i.e., bungee jumpers) or recreational drug use (i.e., Ecstasy users). We chose these two particular activities because they provided an opportunity to explore an interesting psychological question – how do individuals evaluate and understand the relationship between risk and pleasure?

All participants had what can best be described as ‘non-problematic’ relationships with their respective activities (i.e. they did not consider themselves as ‘addicted’. Furthermore, all of the participants in our study claimed they made informed and educated decisions about the risks involved in their respective activities – even though there were variations in each individual’s appraisal of how great this risk might actually be, and of how well-informed they were.

We found both similarities and differences between the bungee-jumpers and the Ecstasy users. Initiation into bungee jumping was presented as the consequence of an active, rational decision. Perhaps this was possible for the bungee-jumpers, in contrast to the ecstasy users, because they had fewer reservations to overcome. We also reported that there seemed to be no expectation of unknown, long-term risk associated with bungee jumping (as opposed to Ecstasy use). Secondly, bungee jumping does not represent an analogous ‘boundary point’ between relatively minor involvement, and more serious involvement, in dangerous sports, in the way that Ecstasy use and amphetamine use may do within general drug-taking activities. Thus, we can see that ‘contextual decisions’ may have a psychological function for the user, as a means of overcoming reservations (through denial of agency), and a discursive function for the speaker, as a means of rationalizing a ‘risky shift.’ However, even though bungee jumpers did not utilize this strategy, they still presented their activities as participatory, and acknowledged that social elements contributed to the rewards of the activity, and carried out a considerable amount of identity work in the interviews, which collectively suggests that (like Ecstasy-use) participation grants access to an identity, and gives the user a voice within a particular sub-culture.

We also found that first experiences of bungee jumping and Ecstasy-use were often ambivalent, and sometimes even unpleasant. This ambivalence was generally reported as leading to a stage of ‘learning to like it.’ This might be considered a key process in moving from initiation to maintaining use. Our analysis of the data sought to illuminate something of what it means to take risks for pleasure in our culture. From this process, a number of insights have emerged.

Firstly, it seemed that initiation into a risk-taking activity may require numerous strategies in order to overcome one’s own reservations, and also to accommodate perceived disapproval from others. These strategies include momentary denials of agency (such as the construction of ‘contextual decisions’ rather than ‘rational decisions’), emphasis on the value of ‘inclusion’ for maintaining friendship and cultural identity, the use of anticipated regret as a rationale for accepting possible consequences, and emphasis on the intrinsic value of collecting a broad range of experiences.

Secondly, while initiation may involve some denial of agency, once the person is initiated, and it perhaps becomes evident that the activity can be maintained relatively safely (costs; managing risks) and satisfactorily (learning to like it; learning to control it), then engagement in the activity becomes more rationalized. This involves the acquisition of information about the risks involved, espousing certain practices in response to those risks, and explaining accidents in terms of inappropriate engagement in the activity. In these ways, short-term risks can be managed and accepted as appropriate to the pleasure received.

One interesting feature of the accounts we collected is their positive, appetitive and wilful orientation toward risk. Our participants articulated a relationship with risk that allowed us to see it as a source of pleasure and reward, cultural identity and social participation, but also perhaps as a means of expressing resistance to conventional constraints. Risk-taking was not exactly ‘normal’ for our participants. Its very abnormality was part of its transgressive allure, but at the same time it was mediated by attempts to adopt safe practices, and as such it cannot be understood simply as negativistic action either. Instead, it makes more sense to understand the value of these transgressive acts in terms of access granted to both desirable identities and modified mood states. Whatever future research uncovers, I will always have my bungee jumping certificate that takes pride of place in my office and reads:

“This certifies that in a brief moment of bravado, Dr. Mark Griffiths being of sound mind did of their own choice leap from a 300ft platform. When they launched themselves into space their only touch with reality was a bungee cord attached to their ankles. This courageous person has hereby encountered “The Ultimate Adrenalin Experience”. Lesser beings should now show the respect and admiration due to the intrepid Bungee Jumper, who has undertaken to accept their fame with some restraint and modesty”

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Beck, U. (1992). The risk society: Towards a new modernity. London: Sage.

Douglas, M. (1994). Risk and blame. London: Routledge.

Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Bungee jumping madness: A personal case study. Psy-PAG Quarterly, 61, 34-36.

Larkin, M. (2002). Understandings and experiences: A post-constructionist cultural psychology of addiction and recovery in the 12-step tradition. Unpublished PhD. thesis, Nottingham Trent University.

Larkin, M., & Griffiths, M.D. (2002). Experiences of addiction and recovery: The case for subjective accounts. Addiction Research and Theory, 10, 281–311.

Larkin, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Dangerous sports and recreational drug-use: Rationalising and contextualising risk. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 14, 215-232.

Plant, M., & Plant, M. (1992). Risk-takers: Alcohol, drugs, sex and youth. London: Routledge.