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

If you sell your soul to heavy metal do you pay for it later in life? During the 1980s, waves of adolescents found solace in this most notorious of extreme music subcultures, alarming their parents as well as authority figures including the US surgeon general and the campaigner and Second Lady Tipper Gore. But a new survey suggests that in 2015, the teenage metalheads from the 80s are doing alright.

This matters because early research seemed to back the prevailing panic: metalheads were fatalistic, cynical, manipulative, and struggled at school. It would become clear that this account failed to consider that many fans were misfits with complicated home-lives before metal entered the picture, and ignored clusters of very high functioning metalheads drawn to the music by its complexity. But even later researchers were reluctant to endorse heavy metal, optimistic only that fans will eventually “outgrow the subculture”.

The current research, spearheaded by Humbolt State University’s Tasha Howe, recruited metalheads active in the 1980s by using Facebook. These were 99 fans, together with about 20 musicians and a similar number of groupies. Compared to a control group of a similar age (into pop, new wave, or soft rock), the heavy metal groupies and fans (but not musicians) reported more adverse childhood experiences, fitting with the idea that people are often drawn to the difficult themes and tone of metal because of real-life discord; the groupies were particularly prone to suicidal tendencies.

Considering their early difficult circumstances, how did the heavy metal groups fare psychologically over time? Much as their non-metal peers did. Based on the recently taken measures, no differences were found compared with controls in adult attachment, the Big Five personality traits, or hypomania. A statistical technique called Bayes Factors can show how likely it is that the null hypothesis was true, meaning the lack of effect is because there really is no difference between groups rather than because of small samples. The Bayes Factors confirmed that for most of these individual differences, the case for “no difference” was solid.

And how do they feel? Presently, the metalheads feel as content in life as their “norm” peers. Furthermore, they recalled being significantly happier in youth, with only one third expressing regrets, versus half of the control group. Furthermore, the controls were the group with the highest incidence of undertaking counselling for emotional problems. This gives credence to what many metal fans believe: that the music offers catharsis and the scene an outlet for the emotional challenges of adolescence.

On the whole, the heavy metal musicians did better than most other groups in the study (the heavy metal fans and non-metal control participants), suggesting they were a high-functioning group – able to master complex musicianship and make a career out of the thing they most loved. The big risk factor for them was unprotected sex – one third had contracted an STD, unsurprising seeing as they averaged over 300 partners each over their lifetimes.

By sampling only current Facebook users we can’t get a complete picture: whether metal increased the risk of premature death, for instance. But the research suggests that the typical fan wasn’t harmed by big hair, blast beats and guitar solos; on the contrary, for many young people, the moshpit was exactly where they needed to be.


Howe, T., Aberson, C., Friedman, H., Murphy, S., Alcazar, E., Vazquez, E., & Becker, R. (2015). Three Decades Later: The Life Experiences and Mid-Life Functioning of 1980s Heavy Metal Groupies, Musicians, and Fans Self and Identity, 1-25 DOI: 10.1080/15298868.2015.1036918

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Psychologists and neuroscientists who rock

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.