A trait called “morbid curiosity” might explain why some people are attracted to violent music like death metal

Morbid curiosity — a psychological trait that may help people explore dangerous parts of life — might explain why certain people gravitate toward music like death metal and rap. A recent experiment found that high levels of morbid curiosity can predict enjoyment and consumption of violently-themed music. The findings were published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Music genres like death metal and violent rap continue to draw fans, despite lyrical themes of death, violence, and even torture. While some have expressed concern that the consumption of violently themed music might encourage real-world violence, there is a lack of scientific data to support this. Instead, reports from music fans suggest that music with dark themes can evoke positive psychosocial outcomes, like joy, peace, and self-reflection.

“I became interested in this specific topic as I am really interested in the fan experience of violently themed music,” said study author Merrick Powell (@MerrickPowell), a PhD candidate at Macquarie University.

“Specifically, I am interested in the process of creating pleasurable and positive experiences out of stimuli that has characteristics that are confronting and considered aversive by many. After researching these positive outcomes and psychosocial benefits that fans have with violently themed music, I then became interested in why people might be attracted to such music in the first place. This was the key question motivating this study.”

To better understand what draws people toward violent music, Powell and his colleagues launched a study. The researchers proposed that the enjoyment of violent music may be partly explained by morbid curiosity, a trait defined by an interest in dangerous phenomena.

Scholars have suggested that morbid curiosity serves an important purpose — to help people understand and learn to avoid dangerous situations within a safe context. For example, horror films and haunted houses offer a means of exploring morbid themes with little real-world consequences. In two experiments, Powell and team tested how morbid curiosity relates to the consumption of violently themed music.

A first study was conducted among 146 college students who identified as passionate music fans. The survey revealed that fans of music with violent themes had higher scores on the Morbid Curiosity Scale — a measure of trait morbid curiosity — than students who were fans of other types of music. Higher morbid curiosity predicted listening to more violent music per week and greater enjoyment of each of the five genres of violently themed music (heavy metal, death metal, black metal, gangsta rap, and drill rap). Notably, these predictions remained significant when taking into account students’ appreciation of displays of technical proficiency and musical intensity.

Next, the researchers conducted an experiment using real excerpts of musical stimuli. This time, 96 college students listened to music excerpts that fit one of four categories: extreme metal with violent lyrics, extreme metal with positive lyrics, rap music with violent lyrics, and rap music with positive lyrics. The students were additionally shown excerpts from these same songs but presented as lyrics on a screen with no music. For each excerpt, participants answered six questions related to their feelings toward the song.

The results revealed that morbid curiosity predicted how much a student enjoyed, was curious about, and wanted to hear more of the extreme metal music excerpts with violent lyrics. Morbid curiosity also predicted a student’s desire to read more of the violently themed rap and metal songs when only lyrics were presented.

Surprisingly, morbid curiosity also predicted how much a student enjoyed, was curious about, and wanted to hear more of the metal music that contained positive lyrics. It did not, however, predict how much they enjoyed, were curious about, or wanted to hear more of the violently themed rap music excerpts. The study authors say that future research should attempt to uncover what does motivate people toward rap music with violent themes.

Overall, both experiments lend support to the researchers’ hypothesis that morbid curiosity plays a role in the enjoyment and consumption of violently themed music. The authors specify that morbid curiosity does not signify a peculiar or aversive trait, but rather an adaptive trait that helps people explore dangerous parts of life and regulate their surrounding emotions.

“Morbid curiosity is a universal trait that all people have, to varying extents,” Powell explained. “Rather than being indicative of deviancy or a ‘strange’ personality, we propose that morbid curiosity is an adaptive trait that help people learn about the dangerous and threatening aspects of life.”

“The results of this study show that having higher morbid curiosity predicts a desire to engage with violently themed music, suggesting that people utilise violently themed music to explore and understand dangerous phenomena. Music appears to act as a ‘simulated’ way of being able confronting violent and threatening material and learn about the emotions that such material evoke.”

A drawback to the study was that the questionnaire did not ask students to explain why they enjoyed or wanted to hear more of the music. This limitation might be improved in future studies with open-ended questions, to uncover additional reasons why people might be attracted to music with violent themes.

“One really interesting finding is that morbid curiosity was associated with the desire to engage with extreme metal music even when it contains positive lyrical themes,” Powell added. “This suggests that the sonic elements of extreme metal music can create this sense of a morbid experience even when the lyrics do not contain violent themes. We hope to look more deeply into the sonic elements of certain extreme metal genres and tease apart more specific elements of different genres in the future.”

The study, “Morbid curiosity for music containing violent themes”, was authored by Merrick Powell, Kirk N. Olsen, and William Forde Thompson.

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