Psychology of Aesthetics: Overview of Theories

How is aesthetic experience linked to familiarity and information? Critically discuss at least two theoretical perspectives and provide evidence based on the literature.

The phenomenon of aesthetic experience refers to a preference judgement to sensory experience. This hedonic response has its roots from the philosopher Baumgarten 1750 (as cited in Reber et al, 2004) who likened the concept of sensation and perception pertaining to beauty, appreciation and art. The philosophical approaches influenced the endeavor to discover contributors to aesthetic experience. Conversely, Fechner adopted an empirical approach rather than the complex philosophical approaches to understanding aesthetic experiences. For instance, experimentation on stimulus properties and preference responses provided a more organized bottom – up approach. (Shimura and Palmer, 2014)

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Gestalt psychologists took on a holistic approach to the principles of perceptual organization. For instance, the principle of familiarity suggests that objects appear to be grouped if the groups are assured to be familiar or meaningful. (Goldstein, 2002) Another principle proposed is that stimulus patterns are pictured in a style that is the most simplistic. For example the Olympic symbol is not usually perceived as nine shapes within five circles but simply as five circles. Thus, Gesalt account does provide a reason into the perception of stimulus. However, Gesalt principles do not explain the role of familiarity and simplicity of information in aesthetic experience. (Goldstein, 2002)

One explanation introduced by the processing fluency is the ease of processing information which consists of perceptual fluency and conceptual fluency. (Reber et al. 2004) Perceptual fluency refers to the ease of processing the perceptual features of a stimulus (Jacoby and Kelley,1987). Whilst, Conceptual fluency is the ease of processing the meaning of a stimulus, or the fluency of conceptually driven processing (Whittlesea, 1993). Prior exposure to stimuli can increase processing fleuncy this is the mere exposure effect report by Zajonc (1968)

He theorized the more often an individual is exposed to an object the more likely they are to develop a preference for stimulus that is familiar than unfamiliar. He demonstrated the causal relation between mere exposure and attitude enhancement. Through a series of experiments nonsense words, Chinese ideographs and photographs of faces were presented in counter balanced order to participants and rated on a scale of how good or bad stimulus words meant and how favorable photographs were. Liking for a stimulus was found to be positively related to the amount of stimulus exposure.

The proximity of experienced fluency and preference judgment can lead participants to misinterpret fluency as their preference reaction to the stimulus. Hence, repeated exposure of a stimulus increases perceptual fluency, which in turn increases the likelihood of misattribution to preference for stimulus. (Bornstein and D’Agostino, 1994).The mere exposure effect can provide an account for, different cultural preferences seen in society. For instance, Hannon et al. (2012) used simple rhythms common in American and Turkish music, complex rhythms common in Turkish music and highly complex rhythms not found in Turkish and American music. Turkish participants performed accurately in simple and complex conditions. However, they performed less accurately in highly complex condition. Conversely, Americans performed accurately when detecting disruptions to the simple rhythm. However, they performed less accurately on the complex and highly complex conditions.

Nonetheless , the robustness of the mere exposure effect is controversial. Kali (1974) exposed children aged seven, nine and eleven years old to Chinese characters. Children then ranked the stimuli according to liking. The seven and nine year olds preferred the familiar characters and the eleven year olds preferred the novel stimuli. Another set of ranks taken three weeks after indicated that eleven year olds preferred the more familiar characters. It was proposed boredom effects intervened on preference ratings. Indeed, Borstein et al. (1990) suggests That, simple stimuli become boring in comparison to complex stimuli.

Berlyne 1960,1974 (as cited in Messinger,1998) proposed that intermediate levels of information produce the highest ratings.Thus, Uncertainty of information is related to aesthetic preference in the inverted U shape function rather than the linear function proposed by the mere – exposure effect. Whilst, preference was based on stimulus related arousal, preference increases to maximal liking, as arousal potential reaches the optimal level. Furthermore, arousal leads to a decrease in liking thus displeasure increases. ( Martindale et al. 1990) This idea of information on preference derived from information theory which is based on mathematical principles. (Berlyne,1957) utilizing a logarithmic equation to measure information yielded by all possible combinations of a given number of stimuli. When there are equally likely possibilities in a stimulus set, the higher the figure the more informational stimulus tends to be, since more combinations are involved.

Martindale et al. (1990) tested Berlyne’s predictions. In the first experiment they asked participants to rate their liking for a series of random polygons varying in size and number of turns. A rating scale has the advantage that it provides a degree of opinion rather than a binary response. Results indicated that polygons with ten turns were preferred and that size had no effect on preference. However, when the same experiment was repeated with a larger range of size and complexity levels. Preference was linearly related to complexity. This questioned the ecological validity and generalizability of Berlyne’s model. Martindale et al. (1990) This contradiction challenges the processing fluency account as a simple stimulus should be preferred as there is less information compared to complex stimulus. Perhaps the mediation of other factors plays an important role, such as expertise and expectation. Reber et al (2004) when expectections of complex stimuli are violated by easy processing then this creates pleasure. Reber et al. (2004) Asethetic pleasure has been found to vary among experts and novices. People who are novices tend to prefer simple, protypical stimuli such as symmetry whereas experts prefer complex, asymmetrical stimuli. (McWhinnie, 1968)

Preference for symmetrical sequences in body movement was investigated by Orgs et al. (2013). Participants were exposed to either symmetrical or asymmetrical sequences. Both groups, then rated the sequences. Results indicated that both groups rated symmetrical sequences higher. Participants in the asymmetrical group displayed an increase preference for asymmetrical sequences. This can be explained by the mere exposure effect. The influence of aesthetic preference on compositional structure and postural information may differ among novice and experts. Moreover, other behaviours such as the ability to identify the structure in aesthetic experience and if participants are asked to perform actions instead of using rating scales is to be explored.

Jacobsen and Hoefel (2003) showed symmetrical and non symmetrical patterns and recorded whether participants judged them as beautiful or not beautiful. They correlated this to Event related potentials. The results indicated that symmetrical patterns were positively correlated to beautiful judgements. Aesthetic judgements related to anterior frontomedian and right hemisphere activation. This does provide an account of processing aesthetic appreciation occurring in specialized brain areas. Nevertheless, this correlation does not mean that specialized brain activation causes aesthetic preference for symmetrical patterns. Event related potentials (ERP) are difficult to detect in the electroencephalograms (EEGS) the ERP is combined with other electrical signals. However the procedure offers a non-invasive technique compared to other procedures which expose participants to radiation or injection. (Kolb and Wishaw, 2009) In addition, the variety of aesthetic preferences are not captured by the forced choice methods. Preference for symmetrical patterns may be due to fluent processing as there is less information to process. (Reber et al. 2004)

The preference towards a given feature over another is not well explained.

Bar and Neta (2006) Adopted an evolutionary perspective, they proposed sharp objects signal danger and curved objects signal safety. They found a preference for curved objects. Furthermore, there was no difference in reaction time, which challenges the perceptual fluency account. Findings support the mere exposure effect as real objects was preferred over novel patterns. Evolutionary perspective poses issues of falsification however, Carbon (2010) used realistic images of cars from 1950 to 1999 and found a preference for curved models, although fashion trends can also have an impact. The stimuli used is more realistic than rating polygons. In addition, this illustrates aesthetic experiences can change over time.

The majority of the studies discussed explore aesthetic liking, however, many dimensions of aesthetic experiences exist. Such as, the pleasure of negative emotions is not captured well. In overview, the studies discussed suggest that the familiarity, novelty, complexity, simplicity of information plays an important role in aesthetic experiences. ( Zajonc,1968; Messinger ,1998) That is, preference for something is in between familiarity and novelty. As boredom intervenes with preference and familiarity. (Borstein et al.1990)Novelty can violate expectations and signal danger. (Reber et al.2004;Bar and Neta, 2006) This is similar for complex and simple information. Preference for something is between easy and challenging stimulus. ((McWhinnie,1968) Preference for things that is known can explain cultural differences in aesthetic experiences. (Hannon et al, 2012) Through neuroaesthetic approaches, specialized brain areas can be linked to aesthetic experience. (Jacobsen and Hoefel, 2003) Despite, different tastes neuroaesthetics can offer a way of investigating the underlying mechanisms involved in the aesthetic experience to generate a set of principles that influence aesthetic experiences. In a nutshell, the theoretical perspectives indicates detecting regularities and understanding information is something humans find aesthetically pleasing.


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