On the most fundamental level, the reason we consume books, movies, and music is to fulfill basic emotional needs. Because our emotional needs are driven by our personalities, people with similar entertainment preferences tend to have certain personality traits in common.
Extroverts, for instance, are high in a trait called sensation seeking—the drive for sensory and intellectual stimulation. Studies show that extroverts are more drawn to horror movies and porn than are introverts. In one study, participants were shown a clip from the movie Friday the 13th while researchers monitored their salivary output. The study found that sensation seekers not only enjoyed the movie more, but also salivated more, indicating alertness and cognitive arousal.
Other studies have found that people who are high in the trait openness to experience tend to like jazz, blues, and classical music.
One group of researchers decided to get a more complete picture of how personality affects entertainment preferences across a variety of media formats—from television to movies to music to art.
First, they asked people to rate how much they liked various entertainment genres, from reality TV to punk rock. What they found is that different preferences tend to cluster together.
People who like romance novels, for instance, also tend to like daytime talk shows. These clusters are also distinct from each other: People who like punk rock are highly unlikely to like gospel music or movie Westerns, just as people who like spy novels also tend to like sci-fi movies, but not poetry.
The researchers divided people’s entertainment preferences into five categories on that basis, then went on to look see what personality factors each group had in common. Here are the five categories of entertainment, and the personality traits of those who like each:
- Communal. These are people who like to feel connected to others. They enjoy pleasant, lighthearted, uncomplicated entertainment about people and relationships. They enjoy romantic movies, reality TV, daytime talk shows, pop music, show tunes, romance novels, and recipe books. In terms of personality, communal consumers tend to be tender, warm, understanding, and empathic (all facets of the personality trait agreeableness), as well as friendly (a facet of extroversion), and dutiful (a facet of conscientiousness).
- Aesthetic. These are consumers who are stimulated by beauty and appreciate entertainment that’s abstract, dense, and demanding. They love art, poetry, classical music, opera, foreign movies, and highbrow books. In terms of personality, they tend to be intelligent, creative, warm, calm, introspective, and in touch with their emotions.
- Dark. These are intense, edgy, hedonistic people who seek out entertainment that provides intense arousal, such as punk, heavy metal, horror movies, late night TV, and porn. They tend to be low in agreeableness and conscientiousness, but quite intelligent, creative, and extroverted. They’re also likely to be high in self-disclosure and provocativeness (facets of extroversion), and tend to be defiant, reckless, and immodest.
- Cerebral. These are information-oriented people who like business books, news and current events, science shows, documentaries, and economics books. They tend to be intelligent and innovative, as well as poised, social, organized, enterprising, self-assured, and detail-oriented—but they’re also less agreeable than average.
- Thrilling. These are people who love adventure, suspense, and fantasy. They tend to like action movies, sports, spy thrillers, and sci-fi. Interestingly, there was no consistent pattern to what personality traits these people might have in common.
We’ve known for centuries that trying to convince other people about what kind of art and entertainment they should like is a fool’s errand. The Romans even had a saying: De gustibus non est disputandum—about matters of taste, there can be no argument. Personality, it seems, may be the reason why.
1. Zuckerman, M. (1996). Sensation seeking and the taste for vicarious horror. In Weaver, J.B., Tamborini, R. (Eds.) Horror films: Current research on audience preferences and reactions. (pp. 147-160). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
2. Vella, E. J., & Mills, G. (2016). Personality, uses of music, and music preference: The influence of openness to experience and extraversion. Psychology of Music.
3. Rentfrow, P. J., Goldberg, L. R., & Zilca, R. (2011). Listening, watching, and reading: The structure and correlates of entertainment preferences. Journal of Personality, 79, 223–258.