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You will love the painting that you see after the painting you loved

Posted December 1, 2019

People love art. We look at paintings searching for meaning and often find them incredibly beautiful. But why? And why some paintings seem to be much more beautiful than others? If you knew that secret, you could be the best artist or at least a good art collector. A new study from the University of Sydney and the University of Florence shows that we base our perception of the art piece by what we saw earlier.

Humans love art and beauty, but which pieces we will consider beautiful is still a huge mystery to both scientists and artists. Image credit: Biswarup Ganguly via Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0)

Art exhibitions are wonderful. You get to spend several hours surrounded by the best pieces from your favorite artist. And while some of the paintings may slip by you without causing much of an impact, some are breathtaking. And that changes you.

Scientists showed a sequence of 40 paintings, depicting scenery or still life, to 24 observers. Participants were asked to rate each one using a slider to indicate how beautiful it looks. This seems simple enough, but scientists wanted to see if perception of the beauty of the artwork depends on the order how the paintings were shown. So they showed the sequence 20 times to each of the observer, changing the order every time. People themselves thought that there will be some sort of a contrasting effect – painting will look nicer if shown after some that they didn’t like. Or not as beautiful if shown after really good ones. But that wasn’t the case.

The study showed that painting that came after really attractive artwork seemed more beautiful to people. Participants rated paintings higher is they followed pieces that they really liked. This is called a serial dependence effect – there is a systemic bias towards recent past experience. There are many reasons why people love things that come after other things they love. It is a bit like inertia. Once your spirits are high, you tend to have a more positive outlook towards your surroundings.

Are there any practical implications to this study? Well, yes. If you want something to seem nicer, reveal it after something really nice. Don’t worry about the contrasting effect in situations like that. Also, you can build up to something really cool. Professor David Alais, supervisor of the study, said: “Perhaps art curators have known all along about the bias towards the recent past. They often keep the best pieces for last and build up to it. Our study shows this would ensure an accumulating effect and guarantee a big finish”.

Beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder. There is no objective beauty – just the way you feel about certain things. Human perception of beauty is definitely worth more extensive in-depth research.


Source: University of Sydney

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