According To Study: Does Listening To Deviant Music Actually Lead To Delinquent Behaviour?

The words 'according to a study' can be used to justify any old garbage, and the average reader has seen enough bullshit 'studies' reported in the media to be suspicious about them all. So this is a new series for TheVine. So far we've looked at whether cute cats actually increase productivity, whether whether bacon actually causes cancer, whether being spiritual makes you more likely to have psychological problems?, whether people think they actually won't change in the future, and whether too much online gaming is a mental illness?. This week: does listening to deviant music cause delinquent behaviour?


A study on teens listening to deviant music becoming delinquents has been going around the traps. The Courier Mail reported the main findings as factual: "A new study shows a strong, early penchant for gothic, punk, heavy metal and hardcore dance music can be a predictor of teens who will go astray. Lovers of "deviant" music by age 12 were "more engaged in minor delinquency in late adolescence", the four-year study, published in the journal Pediatrics, found. The bad behaviour - which includes shoplifting, vandalism, fighting and graffiti spraying - peaks about 16 then falls away. By contrast, pre-teens whose playlists feature mainstream pop, jazz and classical music don't experience the same taste for trouble". The Courier Mail article then got a quote from a developmental psychologist, Kathryn Modecki, telling parents not to worry too much, and some quotes from teen musicians: "Music student Dana Biondo, 15, is a heavy metal and alternative music fan but said her musical taste doesn't make her "crazy"" (Not that delinquent behaviour is actually crazy, per se). The Courier Mail article was probably based on the one by venerable American magazine The Atlantic, which also reported the research straightforwardly, without judgement.

Elsewhere on the internet, pop-culture-focused outlets have been more skeptical of the research. Daniel Kreps at Spin calls the study 'ridiculous' and 'a load of bullshit', pointing out that mainstream pop is full of references to sex and drugs. Jezebel's Lindy West rails against the article, saying "Oh, come on, you guys. How many times are we going to chase this dumb rabbit around the track?", explaining how pop music is occasionally subject to moral panics from parents worried that it's destroying our kids. Even Perez Hilton, of all people, chimed in, saying "There is definitely something OFF about this study!".

Honestly, your reaction to this research thus far is probably the result of confirmation bias, your ability to see what you want to see. If you like loud music, you probably think it's rubbish, and if you think metal and hip-hop are a bit scary, you probably think there might be something to it. So who's right? Nobody and everybody, in a way. Let me explain the research (which you can read for yourself here). 

Dutch researchers were interested in what caused adolescent delinquent behaviour, and so they got 309 kids from two-parent families from urban areas of the Netherlands to fill out a couple of (quite long) surveys each year for four years, from the ages of 12 to 16. In particular, they got the kids to give info about how often they've done delinquent behaviours in the last 12 months (e.g., to say how often they'd done things like shoplift, draw graffiti, been in a fight, etc), and then to rate their liking of various genres of music on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is dislike very much and 5 is like very much (with a separate box to tick if they'd never heard of the genre). When they got participants to do this, they found that most of the kids liked chart pop, R&B and hiphop, while fewer kids, overall liked rock, metal, gothic, punk, trance, techno, classic, or jazz. 

The meat of the study was the correlation that the Dutch researchers did between the kids' delinquency surveys and their ratings of the genres of music they like. As the Courier Mail reported, kids listening to pretty much anything other than classical music, jazz and chart pop is significantly correlated with delinquent behaviour. Now, it's important to point out what this word 'correlated' means: basically, it's just a way of saying 'mathematically related'. If a study reported that there was a correlation between liking ice cream and liking Gotye, it means this: the more you probably like ice cream, all other things being equal, the more you probably like Gotye. Notice the caveats in the phrase in italics: "probably", and "all other things being equal". And, also, notice the word missing in the phrase in italics: "because". So why the 'probably'? It's because correlations are done with lots of data from lots of people. They're trends, rather than ironclad laws (unless the correlation equals 1, which it pretty much never does). Just because there is a correlation between liking ice cream and liking Gotye doesn't mean that there aren't plenty of people who like ice cream who do not like Gotye. And when I said "all other things being equal", what I meant is that there's lots of other things out there that are also correlated with either liking ice cream or liking Gotye - everything from whether you're Australian to whether you have diabetes, I'd imagine! These other things may 'get in the way' of the relationship between Gotye and ice cream for lots of people. But when you adjust the maths to account for them being there (something that's pretty commonly done), the relationship between ice cream and Gotye - the correlation - remains. And the reason why the word 'because' wasn't in that phrase? Well, you probably don't like ice cream just because you like Gotye, or vice versa. If there's a reason why people like both, it is quite likely to be something else.

And so when Dutch researchers find a correlation between delinquent behaviour and liking certain kinds of music, remember that they haven't shown that delinquent behaviour causes liking, say, gothic music, or vice versa. And remember that they have only shown a trend. If you look at their data, they report a correlation between delinquent behaviour and liking metal of 0.25 (at age 12) and 0.29 (at age 16). These are mathematically significant correlations, meaning it hasn't happened by chance. But they're not huge.


Above is a graph of what a correlation of 0.28 looks like (which I found here). It's not from the delinquent/deviant study, but the size of the correlation is similar enough. So let's pretend that each purple dot is a teen in the Dutch survey, and you'll get a sense of what's going on. The higher on the graph you go, the more delinquent behaviour you do. The further right on the graph you go, the more you like metal. There are people on that graph who are really into metal who behave like angels. There are people who really aren't into metal who are VANDALISING THINGS ALL THE TIME. But, overall, there's a few more people who like metal and act up (the people in the top right square) than people who don't like metal and act up (the people in the bottom right square). This is the kind of trend they're talking about. Listening to metal doesn't account for all that much delinquent behaviour, but it accounts for some.

Continues next page. 

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