The Fascinating Science Of Aesthetics

Your preferences for everything from filtered photos to the color blue may be rooted in biology.

The Fascinating Science Of Aesthetics

Our aesthetic tastes are as unique as our DNA. Or are they? Sure, you may adore a Cézanne still-life while your friend absolutely hates it. But research has shown that many people share certain aesthetic preferences, such as landscape paintings and the color blue. Human biology may help explain why.

A new study out of Yahoo Labs looked at what kind of aesthetics attract people, using a relatively new tool: digital photo filters. The researchers wanted to know whether manipulated images on the web engage people more than unfiltered ones. They assessed 7.6 million photos from Instagram and Flickr, and controlled for variables like the number of followers and how many tags a photo had. The results showed a distinct difference: people are 21% more likely to view filtered photos and 45% more likely to comment on them, compared to regular photos.

Italian Landscape, ca. 1650, Jan Both

One reason for this difference might be that filters help tell a story. “People are adding filters to try and match the narrative that’s in their head at the time when they take the shot,” says David Ayman Shamma, one of the study authors. Someone might choose a faded, scratched filter for a photo of a favorite old bar, and this old-timey effect supports the viewer’s understanding of the image. If a filter lets our brains process the content of a photo more easily (something called “perceptual fluency”), it can make us like the image more.

Filters may also stir up emotions that draw people to the image. The study authors note this connection—their findings mirror other studies showing that emotional response drives people’s engagement in social media. “Filters could have an effect on how the viewer feels,” explains Oshin Vartanian, a psychologist who studies cognitive neuroscience at the University of Toronto Scarborough, and who wasn’t involved in the study. “And there’s strong evidence for a link between an emotional response and aesthetic preferences.”

Detail of Femme assise, 1902-03, Pablo Picasso

The Yahoo Labs study is just the latest addition to centuries of thought on aesthetics—scientific and otherwise. In another (mostly tongue-in-cheek) attempt to identify people’s artistic tastes, two Russian artists surveyed people in 10 countries in the 1990s to find out their “most wanted” and “least wanted” paintings. The pair polled over 10,000 people in China, Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, Kenya, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United States about their aesthetic preferences by asking questions like “What’s your favorite color?” and “Do you prefer indoor or outdoor scenes?”

The survey results revealed that people across the world generally liked—and disliked—many of the same things in artwork. All 10 countries preferred the color blue, which isn’t a surprise. Studies dating back to the 1940s have shown people presented with a palette of colors typically choose blue as their favorite. The prevalent theory to explain this: People subconsciously associate colors with things of the same color that they’ve seen in the past. So when someone sees the color blue, it reminds them of pleasant blue skies and clear water, and this influences their preference for it. Blue skies and clear water also have a universally positive association, which may explain why so many people across different cultures prefer blue.

The survey also found that people generally didn’t like the color yellow, a trend seen in other research. Negative associations probably explain our aversion to yellow: “Colors are a function of the experiences we’ve had, and speak to our shared environment,” explains Vartanian. “People tend to dislike colors in yellow—dark yellow in particular—because it’s typically associated with disease and various undesirable things we’ve come into contact with in the past.”

Detail of Sunflowers, 1888, Vincent van Gogh

The 1990s survey also found that most countries (except one) favored landscape paintings. Several decades of research have similarly identified the same preference for open countryside, green grass, trees, water—your standard landscape painting. The popular argument says this Savanna-like landscape speaks to our evolutionary history and basic survival instincts. “We tend to prefer open environments that allow us to look for resources and watch for predators, as well as the ability to hide from predators (like in a tree),” Vartanian says. “If it looks like the kind of environment in which you could survive and thrive, you’re going to have an aesthetic preference for it.” This mental assessment occurs whether you realize it or not, and whether you’re looking at the actual scene or just a painting of a landscape.

Miss Pogany, 1913, Constantin BrâncușiPhoto: Flickr user bobistraveling

The majority of people surveyed for the project also disliked abstract art, and favored curvy lines over sharp, jagged lines—both inclinations likely rooted in how the brain works. Our preference for curvy lines is supported by almost a century of psychological studies, and scientists have found it’s rooted in an evolutionary bias as well. Research has found that when people look at a sharp object in an MRI scanner, it activates a region of the brain (called the amygdala) that responds to danger, whereas curved objects don’t elicit this mental reaction. “Sharp objects in our past were associated with danger,” Vartanian says. “This association has stayed with us, even though the environment we live in today is quite different.”

Dynamism of a Soccer Player, 1913, Umberto Boccioni

And as for abstract art: Well, it’s not hard to figure out why many people don’t like it. An abstract painting is highly conceptual, which means it takes a lot more energy to understand, whereas representational art has a storyline that the viewer can immediately follow. Similar to the photo filters, we typically prefer images that are easier to process. Vartanian notes that this bias doesn’t apply to people trained in visual arts—they tend to like abstract art much more. And there’s a lot of data showing that people with expertise in visual arts perceive paintings very differently overall than someone untrained, so their aesthetic preferences probably differ from the average person in general.

While research has discovered some overarching aesthetic preferences, our artistic tastes will always vary from person to person. “I think that’s one of the dangers of this research,” says Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist at Wellesley Collge, “You don’t want to be like some scientists who say that making great work requires X, Y, and Z, and ‘Here are the 13 things that make a great picture.’” Because obviously, blue landscapes aren’t everyone’s favorite type of painting—it’s far more complicated than that.

About the author

Annie Sneed is a San Francisco-based science journalist. She writes stories on topics ranging from beer microbiology to infectious diseases to the science of design for Fast Company, Wired, and Scientific American.

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