30. July 2018

Beautiful nature - controversial art

New research at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics and New York University shows that consistent aesthetic judgements of taste between people depend on whether a thing is a human artifact or occurs naturally.

There is no accounting for taste. From a scientific point of view, this common phrase is at least partially true as new research conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in collaboration with New York University shows. In a series of experiments, observers were asked to look at images of different aesthetic domains: either faces, natural landscapes, architecture or artworks. In one task, people rated how aesthetically pleasing they found the images to be, and in another task, they worked harder (by rapidly pressing keys) to keep their favorite images on the screen longer. While the first task was designed to assess the participants’ “liking” of what they saw, the second task measured the degree of “wanting”. Based on the two tasks, the researchers then measured the degree of “shared taste” for each domain – that is, the degree to which people agreed in what they liked. For both tasks, faces showed the highest degree of shared taste, followed by natural landscapes – different people tended to like the same images. However, there was very little shared taste for architecture or artworks – one person’s favorite artwork was likely to be another person’s least favorite. 

The results which have recently been published in the scientific journal “Cognition” point to a fundamental difference between naturally occurring aesthetic domains and artifacts of human culture. “Different people tend to react to naturally occurring aesthetic categories in similar ways,” says Edward Vessel, neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics and lead author of the study, “but have highly individual reactions to human created artifacts.”

While it is not clear what exactly drives the difference between naturally occurring aesthetic domains and cultural artifacts, the authors argue that it may have something to do with the relevance of these different domains for everyday behavior. Dr. Vessel suggests that perhaps “aesthetic judgments of faces and landscapes are more likely to have actual consequences for daily decisions” than are judgments of artwork or architecture, which leads different people to value similar sets of features. Previous studies have shown that people - regardless of ethnicity and cultural background - prefer faces that are symmetrical and particularly masculine or feminine. In the case of landscapes, generally open views, the presence of water and signs of human use are positively assessed. 

The lack of clear relevance of art and architectural features for most people may prevent such a convergence in those domains. Ongoing work in his lab at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany seeks to understand whether these different aesthetic domains engage the brain in different ways.

Original publication

Vessel, E. A., Maurer, N., Denker, A. H., & Starr, G. G. (2018). Stronger shared taste for natural aesthetic domains than for artifacts of human culture. Cognition, 179, 121-131. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2018.06.009


Edward A. Vessel, Abteilung Neurowissenschaften
Tel.: +49 69 8300 479 327 / E-Mail: ed.vessel@ae.mpg.de

Press and Public Relations: presse@ae.mpg.de

About the institute

The Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics was founded in 2013 and explores who aesthetically appreciates what, for which reasons and under which situational and historical circumstances. The Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics is one of 84 institutes of the Max Planck Society, one of Europe’s leading organizations for basic research in the natural sciences, life sciences and humanities.