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It Turns Out There Is Accounting for Taste

New research finds people’s taste in entertainment remains remarkably consistent, regardless of whether they’re reading, watching or listening.
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If I told you my taste in movies, would you be able to tell me what kind of music I listen to? How about my favorite reading material, or taste in television?

Peter Jason Rentfrow can — and it’s no parlor trick. The Cambridge University psychologist is lead author of a new study that finds a person’s entertainment choices tend to share certain basic characteristics, which may or may not be immediately obvious.

“Individuals prefer genres that share similar content, irrespective of the medium through which it is conveyed,” he and his colleagues write in the Journal of Personality. “Entertainment preferences are more a function of substance than style.”

The highbrow/lowbrow split, which has dominated cultural criticism for the past century or so, remains alive and well: The researchers report most people gravitate toward one dimension or the other. But Rentfrow and his colleagues also identified an area of common ground. (Hint: It’s occupied by Oprah).

The researchers drew their data from three separate samples: A group of nearly 2,000 University of Texas undergraduates; 736 residents of the Eugene-Springfield, Ore., area; and 545 people recruited on the Internet. All participants completed a detailed survey that listed their age, gender, education level and taste in entertainment; some also answered questions that measured their intelligence level and personality type.

After analyzing the data, the researchers concluded that people’s aesthetic tastes can be broken down into five “entertainment-preference dimensions.”

They are: Aesthetic (which includes classical music, art films and poetry), cerebral (current events, documentaries), communal (romantic comedies, pop music, daytime talk shows), dark (heavy metal music, horror movies) and thrilling (action-adventure films, thrillers, science fiction). The first two fall under the general heading of highbrow, while the final three are labeled lowbrow.

“I believe most people stay in the high/lowbrow domains, and then communal,” Rentfrow said in a follow-up interview. He noted that, among study participants, “there was a fair amount of crossover,” usually between two of the highbrow or lowbrow categories. Communal — a category that also includes family films and TV reality shows — was the only one that attracted large numbers of devotees from both sides of the divide.

“The different dimensions can serve different functions,” he said. “Someone might really like aesthetic media, but when she’s tired, she might enjoy communal media because it’s less taxing.”

So why is one person drawn to, say, free jazz, while another loves punk rock? Age, gender and education levels are important factors, but Rentfrow and his colleagues found basic personality traits also play a major role.

For instance, “individuals who enjoy the aesthetic entertainment factor, which may be regarded as abstract, dense and demanding, tend to be creative, calm, introspective and in touch with their emotions,” they write. Those who are drawn to dark entertainment genres tended to rate high on intellect and extraversion, but low on conscientiousness and agreeableness; they “may generally see themselves as defiant, reckless and immodest.”

In contrast, “It appears as though the psychological characteristics most central to individuals who prefer the communal entertainment factor are rather similar to the defining characteristics of that factor: pleasant, lighthearted, unadventurous, uncomplicated and relationship-oriented,” the researchers add.

This information may be of great interest to internet retailers, who currently use relatively crude methods to suggest items of interest to individual shoppers. “Although many people would be reluctant to provide information about their personalities to places like Amazon or Google,” Rentfrow said, “such information, paired with purchasing history, could potentially yield more relevant recommendations than the current models being used.”

So where does Rentfrow himself fall on this structure? “I would say that my preferences, in descending order, are cerebral, aesthetic and communal,” he said. “I haven’t tested my friends yet, but it’ll be interesting to see how my predictions compare to their preferences.”

Hmm. My favorite theater piece of recent decades is Sweeney Todd, which can be viewed as communal (that’s where Rentfrow and his colleagues place show tunes), aesthetic (given its sophisticated Stephen Sondheim music and lyrics), cerebral (it serves as a metaphor for the devaluation of human life that accompanied the industrial revolution), thrilling (it is a suspenseful, revenge-driven story) and dark (there are multiple murders and a suspicious proliferation of meat pies). Perhaps the greatest works of art hit every point on the compass.