Appeal

In the whirl of summer travel, there’s a good chance you and your companions will agree on the aesthetic appeal of natural landscapes such as mountains and beaches. And, if pressed, you would also likely discover you judge the same people’s faces in crowded airports and avenues to be attractive.

When it comes to artwork and architecture, though, you will likely have sharply different evaluations of the appeal of various paintings, buildings and interiors, according to a new study.

Published in the just-released October 2018 issue of the journal Cognition, the research suggests there’s something universal in how people evaluate the “natural,” whether faces or places, but this shared set of tastes does not carry over to artifacts of human culture such as paintings and structures. 

“Humans make a mark based on how we feel, and the accumulated factors of human choice leave a rich landscape that can tell us yet more about the world around us,” said Pomona College President G. Gabrielle Starr, a co-author of the study and an expert on aesthetics. She began the research in a previous role at New York University, collaborating with lead author Edward A. Vessel of Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany, and researchers Natalia Maurer and Alexander H. Denker.

The study is the latest by a research team, anchored by Vessel and Starr, looking deeper into aesthetics or, simply put, “Why do we like what we like?” As the researchers note, aesthetic judgments may affect everything from our choice of partners to how we spend our free time, and previous studies point to implications in areas ranging from workplace productivity to healing times in hospitals. At the same time, there is still much to be learned in this realm, notes Starr, a scholar of English literature and neuroscience.

For this study, the researchers had people evaluate computer-screen images of faces, nature scenes, interior and exterior architecture, and artwork. Looking at multiple images from each category, study participants agreed the most in their aesthetic judgments of faces, followed by nature scenes. 

Agreement was much lower when it came to architecture, whether interior or exterior, and the least when it came to artwork. As a further check, the researchers also did a head-to-head test between nature scenes and exterior architecture, and, once again, people agreed more on the nature landscapes they found appealing.

Evolutionary factors may be a work in the agreement on faces, with natural selection influencing the agreement on traits found attractive. Similar forces may be at work when it comes to natural landscapes, reflecting the appeal of “features that signal resource availability, habitability and safety, or engage foraging behaviors,” the researchers note.

The study also notes that people may experience more consequences from evaluations of faces and landscapes, while interactions with art and architecture bring fewer day-to-day consequences. And elements of style may come into play more when it comes to art and architecture, leaving personal experience as a larger force in determining aesthetic appeal. 

“It is reasonable to assume that a major driver of the individual differences observed for aesthetic preferences of artwork and architecture is the diversity of individuals’ experiences,” the researchers note in the study. “These findings hint at a fundamental difference in how experience influences aesthetic judgments for ‘natural’ aesthetic domains, as opposed to artifacts of human culture.”