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What Constitutes an Aesthetic Experience from a Psychological Point of View

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Even though aesthetic judgments are as old as art, a reliable guideline on how to make any work (painting, desk, car, mobile phone) as aesthetically pleasing as possible does not exist. This is due to the fact that people’s tastes in such matters change in time according to the age or trends they witness, but also because people might like some features to be more pronounced in some objects (curved lines in cars), but less so in others (curved lines in desks). This suggests that each type of object can be designed with the end user in mind in such a way as to make it more appealing by following some object specific design guidelines. This also suggest that playful experiments and education might play a role in shaping people’s reaction to symmetry.

The question of what constitutes an aesthetical experience from a psychological point of view and how can such an experience be tested was posed as early as 1870s (Wundt, 1873), but it is still as relevant as ever (Jacobsen, 2010a).

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Early studies have not been focused as much on the empirical side of the problem, but rather more on the art theory than psychology. In fact there was a strong cross-pollination between early studies of psychology of art and art theory as evidenced by the works of Rudolf Arnheim (Arnheim, 2004), Ernst Gombrich (Gombrich, 2000) or Eric Kandel (Kandel, 2012). The focus of this problem has been for more than a century on art theory due to several causes. First of all, because it was important to understand the object of study and it is widely known that art has a wide critical apparatus as the work of each artist was discussed, mixed and deconstructed in relation with other artists through the ages. Second, art has a tendency of simplifying things in order to only capture their essence, therefore simple or more complex paintings can be used according to the needs of the experimenter. Third, by fixing on a work of art, the beholder’s reaction can be recorded (e.g., gazing, parts of the painting that are attractive or not, etc.) and interpreted which is very important for the empirical part of the problem. Fourth, by studying the reaction to art the number of parameters can be reduced, whereas when studying more complex objects like cars it was important to look at all the parts involved (interior design, exterior design, aerodynamics, relation with previous cars built by the same brand, etc.). Lastly, everybody had some sort of exposure to art due to cultural marketing. Regarding this last point, it has to be noted that in the early days the difference of opinion between people who had a lower exposure to art and experts (painters, critics, etc.) was less important than the fact that various styles could help understand people’s reaction to the use of color, composition, complexity or abstraction (Leder et al., 2004).

More recently, Etcoff (1999) presents considerable progress in understanding the form and shape of aesthetically pleasing faces. Simola, Hyona, and Kuisma (2014) study the effect of various factors like attention or distraction on the evaluation of visual advertising in different media. Leder and Carbon (2005) study the effects of complexity, form and innovativeness in the interior car design and even propose a technique called RET in order to capture the dynamic combined effects of attractiveness and innovations (Carbon & Leder, 2005). It can be argued that even being exposed to a new field can change not just our perception of art but our entire aesthetic judgment, especially since the aesthetic experience is multi-sensorial and often similar to an embodiment of our imagination (Joy & Sherry, 2003).


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