Eminem or Elgar: Will psychologists soon be able to identify psychopathic tendencies through your playlists?

A new study carried out by a team of researchers at New York University has suggested that the listening habits of psychopaths are more likely to include Eminem than Elgar. An experiment in which 200 volunteers listened to 260 songs and had their tastes matched against a test for psychopathic traits saw those with the highest psychopath scores responding most positively to Blackstreet’s No Diggity and Eminem’s Lose Yourself, The Guardian reported. Psychopaths proved no more attracted to classical music than anyone else, but fans of The Knack’s My Sharona and Sia’s Titanium exhibited the lowest psychopath scores.

The team of researchers, led by Pascal Wallisch, Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychology at NYU, ran tests on a second group of volunteers which suggested song preferences could be used to help predict the personality disorder, which is characterised by antisocial behaviour, insincerity and a lack of empathy or remorse.

“The media portrays psychopaths as axe murderers and serial killers, but the reality is they are not obvious; they are not like The Joker in Batman. They might be working right next to you, and they blend in. They are like psychological dark matter,” Pascal Wallisch told The Guardian.

While studies have suggested that about one percent of people in the general community are considered psychopathic, the number is as high as 20 percent in prisons and research by Australian Forensic psychologist Nathan Brooks has indicated the number may be just as high in the business sector.

“You don’t want to have these people in positions where they can cause a lot of harm,” said Wallisch. “We need a tool to identify them without their cooperation or consent.”

No Diggity and Lose Yourself may have been the most popular amongst the volunteers with the most psychopathic tendencies, but they didn’t have the same predictive power as other songs used in the study. Wallisch and his team are hoping to build on this research with another larger study, involving thousands of people across the psychopathy spectrum, to investigate whether the correlation between musical preferences and psychopathy is real and whether it will be possible to use playlists of songs to predict the disorder.

“The beauty of this idea is you can use it as a screening test without consent, cooperation or maybe even the knowledge of the people involved,” Wallisch said. “The ethics of this are very hairy, but so is having a psychopath as a boss, and so is having a psychopath in any position of power.”

While the research may eventually allow data and playlists from online music providers such as Spotify to be used to identify psychopaths, there is still a long way to go.

This work is very preliminary,” Wallisch added. “This is not the end of an investigation, it is the very beginning.”