Fans of violent films unlikely to be psychopaths, study says

Researchers did see a faint connection between "conservative" music listeners and "maladaptive personality traits"

By Nicole Karlis

Published October 7, 2019 6:00PM (EDT)

A cosplayer dressed as The Joker attends the New York Comic Con at Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on October 03, 2019 in New York City. (Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for ReedPOP)
A cosplayer dressed as The Joker attends the New York Comic Con at Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on October 03, 2019 in New York City. (Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for ReedPOP)

The idea that entertainment affects our personality has been a source of panic throughout history — from The Beatles to Elvis Presley to the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s. More recently, with the release of “Joker,” public fears abound that violent movies about loners will inspire violence in real life.

But is there any truth that there is a connection between entertainment and personality traits? Turns out there is just a little — but not quite in the way the public thinks, and not with movie preferences.

This question grabbed the attention of Pavel Blagov, an associate professor of psychology at Whitman College, who co-published a study on related research last month in the journal Psychology of Music. Blagov told Salon that he and his research team wanted to use previous research to predict links between entertainment preferences and recent models of maladaptive personality traits.

“These are the kinds of traits that clinical psychologists and psychiatrists might measure to describe long-standing difficulties in people's usual ways of thinking, feeling, acting, and relating to others,” Blagov told Salon via email. “This is important because valid models of personality should allow us to predict not only mental health and other health outcomes, but also day-to-day activities, like the kind of music and movies people enjoy.”

The researchers surveyed 379 Americans between the ages 18 to 65 years about their musical tastes, movie interests, personality traits, and psychopathic tendencies. They accounted for sex and age differences, too. To Blagov’s surprise, the links were not strong between personality and the kinds of music and movies people enjoy.

“The links between maladaptive traits and entertainment preferences were relatively weak. Therefore, finding out what music and movies a person likes does not readily allow us to guess how withdrawn, eccentric, fearless/dominant, or hostile the person is,” Blagov said. “This is somewhat surprising, to the extent that people, especially younger people, may identify strongly with their favorite entertainment genres, and they may try to judge the personalities of others based [on] such preferences.”

That connection – or rather, lack thereof – is particularly relevant given the mild panic over the release of “Joker.” This recent research suggests that there is likely no connection between one’s personality traits and whether one likes a movie whose titular character is a violent misfit. That, of course, is not to say that violence or terrorism targeting crowded public spaces like theaters does not exist — merely that such terroristic acts are probably generally not inspired directly by said entertainment.

Blagov added that such links may exist at the “population level,” but they should not be used to "analyze" or "diagnose" individuals. Blagov said there was no support for the idea that people who enjoy music heavy metal, punk, alternative rock, hip-hop, rap, and rave would tend to have maladaptive personality tendencies.

“This had been suggested in some older literature on the so-called (and I would like to emphasize the "so-called") "problem" music,” he said. “We found not even a hint of such a link, perhaps because these music genres have become much more accepted, mainstream, and of interest to the average person (and more commercialized).”

However, the research surfaced some minor links, like that music among American conservatives — such as country music and gospel — were linked to neurotic and hostile tendencies.

“It did surprise us, because we had not expected interests in traditional and religious music genres and faith-oriented movies to have links to maladaptive traits, and it is unclear why such (fairly small) links emerged in our study,” he said. “Speculatively, the small link between conservative/religious entertainment and neurotic, hostile, and eccentric tendencies might mean that people with such music and movie interests in our participant sample were more open than the average person to acknowledge common personality failings, or it might mean that some people who face negative emotions turn to traditional and religious media for comfort or for answers.”–

Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a staff writer at Salon. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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