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Key Factors Influencing Aesthetic Preference

How do we judge beauty?

Key points

  • What makes an experience aesthetic is the way you exercise your attention.
  • The kinds of music or artwork you have seen before deeply influence your aesthetic preference.
  • The aesthetic experience provides an escape from everyday practical experiences.

Aesthetics are about experiencing things as beautiful. Aesthetic experiences include artworks, but also the experience of a breathtaking landscape, the autumn leaves in the park, listening to your favorite music, wardrobe choices, home decoration, and so on. Our daily aesthetic choices reveal preferences (Nanay, 2020). What factors shape individual differences in aesthetic preferences? Winner (2019) tackled this question in her book How Art Works.

1. Pleasure. Aesthetics are about pleasure. Aesthetic pleasure differs from physical pleasures (drinks, pornography, or games). We tire less quickly of artworks in one sitting than of most of the pleasures we physically consume. For example, walking along the beach is quite enjoyable and it can go on for a long time. In contrast, sex, or calories, particularly unhealthy ones, leave you mostly empty afterward. Works of art that move us most activate the area of the brain called the default mode network. And they motivate us to reflect on ourselves—to look inward and think about ourselves.

2. Doing for its own sake. Aesthetic experiences can arise from the appreciation of artworks (poetry, music, painting, etc.) or natural objects like sunsets or landscapes. They are typically sought and savored for their own sake. The focus is on the pleasure that arises from the act of doing something rather than achieving some ultimate personal goal. For example, we care about the way things look when we set a table for guests, when we arrange our living room furniture, or pick out our clothes.

3. Aesthetic judgments. "Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it," according to Confucius. Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. When we have aesthetic disagreements, we have disagreements about aesthetic judgments. For example, I may like Miles Davis and you may like Britney Spears. Observing the stormy sky with strong lightning may be extremely fascinating. However, farmers are not aesthetically captivated at all 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 is shown to be the best predictor of aesthetic attitude (appreciating artworks) and participation in aesthetic activities. Individuals with this trait tend to be more intellectually curious which drives a greater taste for aesthetic experiences.

5. Familiarity. Familiarity plays a powerful role in shaping our aesthetic tastes. We like what we are used to. The mere 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 we are exposed to in public places (coffee shops, shopping malls, etc.) leaves its mark on our preferences. One reason for this is that artworks take time to understand, and the ones we have seen more seem more understandable to us.

6. Context. Oscar Wilde said, “No object is so ugly that, under certain conditions of light and shade, or proximity to other things, it will not look beautiful.” Context can shift our preferences. An amusing illustration of this occurred when acclaimed Joshua Bell agreed to participate in an experiment conducted by the Washington Post. In the experiment, Bell, wearing jeans and a baseball cap, nonchalantly played his $3.5 million Stradivarius violin during rush hour in the subway. Most passersby barely noticed him and gave no indication of realizing that they were in the presence of an accomplished artist. However, when people see Joshua Bell dressed up in a concert hall, they highly appreciate his talent, even though he is playing the same instrument and the same music.

7. Identity. We take our aesthetic preferences to be a big part of who we are. Our taste in music, film, art, coffee, and dress represents one of the essential features of who we are. And changes in taste can be viewed 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 a work of art we love feels like an attack on ourselves.

As consumers of art, our interactions with artworks can result in aesthetic pleasure. The aesthetic experience provides an escape from everyday practical experiences. The opportunity to escape from one’s reality contributes to mood improvement. As American Dancer Twyla Tharp remarked, “Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.”


Bence Nanay (2020), Aesthetics: A Very Short Introduction; NY: Oxford University Press.

Winner E (2019), How artworks: A psychological exploration, New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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