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The neuroscience of beauty

August 3, 2013 0 Comments

david-michelangeloWhat are some things perceived as beautiful and others not?

Neuroscience has a lot to say about this, and what it has to say is highly relevant to product design, packaging, and aesthetics.

In this post I’m only going to highlight one article written in 2004 by Rolf Reber, Norbert Schwartz, and Piotr Winkielman entitled “Processing Fluency and Aesthetic Pleasure: Is Beauty in the Perceiver’s Processing Experience?” (published in Personality and Social Psychology Review and available on SSRN).  Here is the abstract:

We propose that aesthetic pleasure is a function of the perceiver’s processing dynamics: The more fluently perceivers can process an object, the more positive their aesthetic response. We review variables known to influence aesthetic judgments, such as figural goodness, figure-ground contrast, stimulus repetition, symmetry, and prototypicality, and trace their effects to changes in processing fluency. Other variables that influence processing fluency, like visual or semantic priming, similarly increase judgments of aesthetic pleasure. Our proposal provides an integrative framework for the study of aesthetic pleasure and sheds light on the interplay between early preferences versus cultural influences on taste, preferences for both prototypical and abstracted forms, and the relation between beauty and truth. In contrast to theories that trace aesthetic pleasure to objective stimulus features per se, we propose that beauty is grounded in the processing experiences of the perceiver, which are in part a function of stimulus properties.

girl-before-a-mirror-by-pablo-picassoThe idea of processing fluency is deceptively simple.  Things that are easier to process cognitively are perceived as more aesthetically pleasing than things that are harder to process.  Several intriguing findings are reported:

  • Identical patterns are rated more favorably when presented with vertical rather than horizontal symmetry (Palmer, 1991)
  • High contrast enhances liking for patterns shown briefly, but not for identical patterns shown longer (R. Reber & Schwarz, 2001)
  • Objectively identical stimuli are evaluated more favorably when their processing is facilitated through priming procedures (R. Reber et al., 1998; Winkielman & Fazendeiro, 2003)
  • Repeated exposure to a stimulus results in more favorable evaluations, a phenomenon known as the mere exposure effect (Zajonc, 1968, 1998)
  • Prototypical forms are preferred over nonprototypical forms (Martindale, 1994)
  • People prefer “average” stimuli (Rhodes & Tremewan, 1996).
  • Stimulus complexity is often related to preference by an inverted Ushaped function (e.g., Berlyne, 1971; Vitz, 1966).

rothko-orange-and-yellowThe authors also note the moderating and mediating influences from two intervening variables, expectations and attribution processes.

Unexpected fluency tends to produce more subjective experience than expected fluency:

According to the discrepancy-attribution hypothesis (Whittlesea & Williams, 1998, 2000), fluency associated with processing a certain event is more likely to elicit a subjective experience (pleasure, familiarity, etc.) if the fluency is unexpected in light of the person’s processing expectations, which constitute a “norm” for the event (Kahneman & Miller, 1986).

The fluency-preference relationship disappears when people attribute their preference to an irrelevant source:

we observed that the impact of processing fluency on judgment is eliminated when participants attribute their affective reactions to an irrelevant source, such as a background music (e.g., Winkielman & Fazendeiro, 2003)

Finally, they propose an explanation for why stimulus complexity is related to preference in an inverted U-shaped function:

With low levels of complexity, the source of fluency is very salient. As complexity increases, the salience of the source of perceptual fluency decreases, enhancing the misattribution of fluency to beauty. However, further increases in complexity will eventually reduce processing fluency, leading to a decrease in perceived beauty. These mechanisms would combine to form a U-shaped relation between complexity and beauty, as predicted and found by Berlyne (1971).

This is just a taste of a very rich and thought-provoking article.  I recommend it to anyone interested in understanding the neuroscience of beauty.

Reber R, Schwarz N, & Winkielman P (2004). Processing fluency and aesthetic pleasure: is beauty in the perceiver’s processing experience? Personality and social psychology review : an official journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc, 8 (4), 364-82 PMID: 15582859

Originally posted in my defunct earlier blog, October 17, 2007.

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About the Author:

AvatarSteve is a writer, speaker, researcher, and marketing consultant. He is author of Intuitive Marketing (2019), a study of persuasion and influence in marketing theory and practice, and co-author of Neuromarketing for Dummies (2013), a comprehensive overview of neuromarketing science, applications, methodologies, and ethics. He is Managing Partner at Intuitive Consumer Insights, where he focuses on marketing education and consulting.

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