Monday, 18 July 2016

Songs like "Angel of Death" protect heavy metal fans from existential angst

Heavy metal band Black Label Society on stage Brazil, via Flickr/Focka
Listening to songs about death and dressing yourself in t-shirts featuring skulls and demons might seem like a strange way to combat existential angst. Nonetheless, a new study in Psychology of Popular Media Culture shows that listening to heavy metal helps fans of the genre deal with their own mortality. This is likely because to fans, heavy metal represents so much more than a genre, it embodies a way of life and a sense of identity. The results support and extend what's known as Terror Management Theory – the idea that we instinctively deal with existential angst by thinking about what has meaning to us in the world and reinforcing our self-esteem.

Julia Kneer and Diana Rieger first measured the salience to 30 heavy metal fans of their "cultural world view" – they did this by asking them to rate words, including those pertaining to heavy metal, as fast as possible, as either positive or negative using keyboard keys. On this test, fast responding to heavy metal words is taken as a sign that the heavy metal culture is salient in a participant's mind.

Next, all the participants spent five minutes writing about their own death. Then half of them listened to one of two well-known heavy metal songs (Paranoid or Angel of Death), while the other half listened to three minutes of an audio book unrelated to heavy metal (Don's story from Fusselfieber). Finally, all the participants repeated the test of the salience of their cultural world view.

Those heavy metal fans who'd written about their own death and then listened to an audio book showed a subsequent increase in the salience of their cultural world view – this is consistent with Terror Management Theory because it suggests these fans dealt with the existential angst caused by the writing task by turning their minds to thoughts of heavy metal culture. Crucially, this increase in cultural world view salience was not seen among the fans who'd had the chance to listen to a heavy metal song. The researchers said it's as if listening to the song was itself enough of a protection against existential angst – there was no need for them to engage any further psychological defences.

Maybe listening to heavy metal would have this effect on anyone? Not so. A second experiment was similar but this time heavy metal fans and non-fans wrote about their own death and then listened to heavy metal or an audio book. Instead of salience of cultural world view, for this experiment the researchers used a similar test to look for signs the participants were attempting to reinforce their self-esteem (as revealed by extra fast responses to positive statements about the self), which is another known psychological defence against existential threat.

Non-fans of metal who listened to heavy metal or an audio book, and fans who listened to an audio book, all responded to writing about their mortality by showing signs of subconsciously boosting their self esteem, again consistent with Terror Management Theory. But once more, there was no sign of this defence mechanism among the fans who had the chance, after writing about their mortality, to listen to a heavy metal song. This suggests that it is specifically heavy metal fans who are protected from existential angst by listening to heavy metal.

We need more research to understand why heavy metal fans gain this protection from their favoured music – for example, would anyone who listens to their own preferred music get the same existential benefit, or is it only the fans of musical genres that are associated with powerful subcultures who likely gain in this way?

The results add to previous research into popular culture that's shown particularly meaningful movies can also provide a buffer against existential angst. The researchers said the findings "reveal metal music as [another] type of media content that helps to overcome fear of death. Fans of metal music are reminded of this part of their social identity when listening to metal music, which leads to an increased identification with their salient heavy metal in-group".

The new research also speaks to another possibility, that through being constantly surrounded by reminders of death – via heavy metal lyrics and iconography – metal fans are somehow immunised against existential angst. In fact, because metal fans who didn't get to listen to a metal track responded to mortality reminders in a typical way, through increasing the salience of their world view or boosting their self esteem, this suggests that while they do gain existential comfort from listening to their music, they are not immune to fears of dying.


Kneer, J., & Rieger, D. (2016). The memory remains: How heavy metal fans buffer against the fear of death. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 5 (3), 258-272 DOI: 10.1037/ppm0000072

--further reading--
The scaremongers were wrong: Metalheads from the 80s are thriving

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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