Key Factors Influencing Aesthetic Preference

Aesthetics consists in experiencing such beautiful things. Aesthetic experiences include artwork, but also experiencing breathtaking scenery, autumn leaves in the park, listening to your favorite music, wardrobe choices, decorating of the house, etc. Our daily aesthetic choices reveal preferences (Nanay, 2020). What factors shape individual differences in aesthetic preferences? Winner (2019) addressed this issue in his book How Art Works.

1. Pleasure. Aesthetics is synonymous with pleasure. Aesthetic pleasure differs from physical pleasures (drinks, pornography or games). We tire less quickly of works of art in one sitting than of most of the pleasures we physically consume. For example, walking along the beach is quite pleasant and can take a long time. In contrast, sex or calories, especially unhealthy ones, mostly leave you feeling empty afterwards. The works of art that move us the most activate the area of ​​the brain called the default mode network. And they motivate us to reflect on ourselves, to look within and to think about ourselves.

2. Doing for one’s own good. Aesthetic experiences can arise from the appreciation of works of art (poetry, music, painting, etc.) or natural objects such as sunsets or landscapes. They are generally sought after and relished for themselves. The emphasis is on the pleasure that comes from the act of doing something rather than the achievement of an ultimate personal goal. For example, we care about how things look when we set a table for guests, when we arrange our living room furniture or choose our clothes.

3. Aesthetic judgments. “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it,” according to Confucius. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. When we have aesthetic disagreements, we have disagreements about aesthetic judgments. For example, I can like Miles Davis and you can like Britney Spears. Observing the stormy sky with strong lightning can be extremely fascinating. However, farmers are not at all aesthetically captivated by a storm. Their judgments would be mostly pragmatic: a storm is a dangerous event that can destroy their crops. How we interpret a situation affects how we respond.

4. Personality. Openness to experience turns out to be the best predictor of aesthetic attitude (appreciation of works of art) and participation in aesthetic activities. People with this trait tend to be more intellectually curious, which leads to a greater liking for aesthetic experiences.

5. Familiarity. Familiarity plays a powerful role in shaping our aesthetic tastes. We like what we are used to. The simple exposure effect, a well-established idea in psychology, suggests that the more you are exposed to something (cereal ads, people, songs), the more you tend to like it. For example, the music to which we are exposed in public places (cafés, shopping malls, etc.) marks our preferences. One reason for this is that artworks take time to understand, and the ones we’ve seen the most seem more understandable to us.

6. Background. Oscar Wilde said, “No object is so ugly that under certain conditions of light and shadow, or near other things, it won’t be beautiful.” The context can modify our preferences. An amusing illustration of this occurred when the famous Joshua Bell agreed to participate in an experiment conducted by The Washington Post. In the experiment, Bell, dressed in jeans and a baseball cap, nonchalantly played his $3.5 million Stradivarius violin during rush hour on the subway. Most passers-by barely noticed and gave no indication of realizing they were in the presence of an accomplished performer. However, when people see Joshua Bell in disguise in a concert hall, they greatly appreciate his talent even though he plays the same instrument and music.

7. Identity. We view our aesthetic preferences as a big part of who we are. Our taste for music, cinema, art, coffee and clothing represents one of the essential characteristics of who we are. And changes in taste can be seen as changes in identity, especially for young adults. This explains why we feel compelled to try to convince others of what is so important to us. An attack on an artist or work of art that we love is like an attack on ourselves.

As art consumers, our interactions with works of art can result in aesthetic pleasure. The aesthetic experience offers an escape from everyday practical experiences. The possibility of escaping from one’s reality contributes to the improvement of the mood. As American dancer Twyla Tharp noted, “art is the only way to escape without leaving home.”

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