sensory economics: cheaper is better

Experimental studies indicate that persons rate images that they process more fluently as more aesthetically pleasing:

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.

Speed of identification and categorization of stimuli indicate processing fluency. They are also plausible indicators of the bodily cost of processing stimuli. Thus an economic interpretation of these results is that, among images with a common (zero) external price, persons prefer images that they process at low bodily cost.

Processing fluency implicitly refers to some processing objective. A typical biological approach divides making sense into stages of sensation, perception, and cognition. Then perceptual fluency refers to processing through the stage of perception. Conceptual fluency would then be understood as adding additional meaning-related processing beyond the stage of perception. However, these stages are not biologically well-defined. Much evidence points to a more flexible and functionally organized process of making sense.

The experimental evidence on processing fluency might be better interpreted with respect to the subjects’ plausible goals in processing the stimuli that the experiments present. The experiments present to subjects individual images not related to a narrative or a personal encounter. For example, some experiments present subjects with random patterns of dots. The subjects are then asked questions about the image, such as “How attractive is it?” and “To what category does it belong?” The latter question clearly points to an information processing objective. The former question is an affective evaluation of the results of such an information processing objective. These experiments thus suggest that, given an information processing objective, persons prefer images that they process at low bodily cost.

These experiments point to much additional useful research. Recent work on multi-sensory perception and mirror neurons indicates that the body creates common effects from different sensory services. That suggests, as does other evidence, that sensory form affects stimulus processing fluency. Moreover, making sense of information, narratives, and persons probably has significantly different implications for stimulus processing. Experiments that incorporate multiple sensory dimensions and that more explicitly structure communicative objectives could make an important contribution to science and to the practical design of communication services.

None of these comments should be interpreted to devalue aesthetic pleasure in the here and now. Experimentally unifying figural goodness, figure-ground contrast, stimulus repetition, symmetry, prototypicality, and visual and semantic priming in a common economics of processing fluency and preference is a great scientific achievement!

Cited reference:
Reber, Rolf, Norbert Schwarz, and Piotr Winkielman (2004), “Processing Fluency and Aesthetic Pleasure: Is Beauty in the Perceiver’s Processing Experience?” Personality and Social Psychology Review, v.8 no. 4 pp. 364-82.

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