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5 Factors Influencing Aesthetic Appreciation

Why do people differ in what they like and prefer?

Key points

  • Aesthetic appreciation or good taste is the ability to appreciate objective beauty.
  • Aesthetic taste is influenced by many factors, such as personal or cultural background, familiarity, context, and expertise.
  • Access to aesthetically interesting and valuable objects and environments can improve our well-being.

Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it. — Confucius

The field of aesthetics is concerned with the nature of beauty and art, along with the creation and appreciation of beauty. Aesthetic experiences can include artworks but also breathtaking landscapes, great conversation, the autumn leaves in the park, your favorite music, wardrobe choices, home decoration, and so on.

Beautiful things and experiences enhance our lives. As Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked, “Good taste is important because it allows you to enjoy life more fully.” As art consumers, our interactions with artworks can result in aesthetic pleasure—for example, when we arrange our living room furniture or pick out our clothes.

Our taste—in music, film, art, coffee, food, life partner, and dress—represents one of the essential features of who we are. Our taste helps us define who we are; it is also a way to understand others.

Taste informs so many of our decisions in life: where we choose to live, what we keep in our homes, how we nourish our bodies, and whom we choose as a life partner. Changes in taste and aesthetic values can be seen as a change in who we are because they affect how others view us.

There are substantial differences among people in what they like and prefer, such as cultural background, familiarity, experience, context, and expertise.

1. Aesthetic Sensibility

One of the main sources of variation in aesthetic appreciation is aesthetic sensitivity. A person’s liking can be strongly determined by one feature but not another. For example, two people may differ in their preference for a musical piece because, in forming their preferences, one takes complexity into account, and the other does not. For someone who is aesthetically insensitive to complexity, this feature is irrelevant to their aesthetic appreciation.

2. Personality

Openness to experience is shown to be the best predictor of 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.

3. 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. However, if you limit yourself to things you know you like, you will lead a dull life. One of the most important ways to develop good taste is to be exposed to different types of art and culture.

4. Perceived Complexity

We tend to prefer stimuli that are neither too easy nor too difficult. An object that is too simple would lead to boredom, while too much complexity would cause distraction. The sweet spot, for most people, is somewhere in the middle.

Repeated presentations reduce complexity. As we are repeatedly exposed to a stimulus (such as music), our perceptual fluency increases, and we learn to process that thing more easily. And fluency begets liking. The ease of processing, which feels good, translates into positive feelings and increased liking.

5. Context

Our preferences are contextual. The context changes the content. Context adds value and significance to every object. The same object can take on a considerably different meaning in new surroundings. A dense environment feels different than a spacious one. After the quiet song, the loud one seems more bombastic. We like a certain piece of music less when we learn some harmful fact about its composer. Our aesthetic assessment of a garden plant may be connected to how it fits into a broader environment and contributes to an overall effect.

In the final analysis, one's taste is a tricky thing to explain. Aesthetic judgments are simply matters of personal taste. What one person finds beautiful, another may find ugly. What one person finds interesting, another may find boring. However, the mere exposure effect implies that we should be aware of our cultural background when making aesthetic evaluations.

More from Shahram Heshmat Ph.D.
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