The psychology of aesthetics involves the “study of our interactions with artworks; our reactions to paintings, literature, poetry, music, movies, and performances; our experiences of beauty and ugliness, our preferences and dislikes; and our everyday perceptions of things in our world—of natural and built environments, design objects, consumer products, and of course, people” (Smith & Tinio, 2014, p. 3). If this definition seems all encompassing, it is indeed because aesthetic experiences are so ubiquitous in our lives. Just think of what our typical days are like: we look at pictures while reading a magazine, listen to music while driving to work, watch television at night, and read a novel while on the subway. And we have not even started talking about visits to art museums and operas and theatres and concert halls. Aesthetic experiences also involve a wide range of responses, from pleasure, preference, liking, and interest to disgust, anger, and surprise (Silvia, 2009).
For more than a century since Gustav Theodore Fechner’s (1876) early aesthetics studies, psychologists have been investigating what aesthetic experiences entail, and we have learned a great deal. Let’s take visual art as an example: What kinds of art do people like? Studies have shown that people who know a lot about art tend to like all kinds of art, including abstract works, while people who might have had less experience with art tend to enjoy art that depicts people or objects, but find abstract and conceptual art a challenge to look at and understand (Cupchik & Gebotys, 1988). How much time do people spend looking at individual paintings by masters like Raphael, Cezanne, and Rembrandt? Much less than we might think: 27.2 seconds on average (Smith & Smith 2001). Whether a title or other information accompanies a painting also influence how we look at such works (Leder, Carbon, & Ripsas, 2006; Russell & Milne, 1997).
Aesthetics researchers use methods that are as varied as aesthetic experiences themselves. These include the traditional methods of social science, such as observations, interviews, and surveys. Other available methods include techniques associated with basic research, which commonly involve experiments conducted in psychology laboratories with the aim of objectively looking at behaviors such as people’s interest in, preference for, understanding of, and feelings towards such things as art, music, and design objects. Recently, researchers have developed other high-tech ways of studying aesthetics. For example, they measure eye movements of people looking at paintings. They look at brain functions in response to listening to sounds. They examine heart rate, skin conductance, and subtle movements of facial muscles when looking at photographs of faces or scenes.
Findings from the field of psychology of aesthetics are tremendously useful in a variety of settings. Teachers use them to develop aesthetics education or arts education programs; designers use them to increase the attractiveness and desirability of their products; museum professionals use them to design programs and facilitate learning; and mental health professionals use them in their clinical practices. And the list goes on and on. The psychology of aesthetics is one of the oldest fields in psychology; and it continues to expand and thrive.
Cupchik, G. C., & Gebotys, R. J. (1988). The search for meaning in art: Interpretative styles and judgments of quality. Visual Arts Research, 14, 38–50.
Fechner, G. T. (1876). Vorschule der Ästhetik [Primary school of aesthetics]. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel.
Leder, H., Carbon, C. C., & Ripsas, A. (2006). Entitling art: Influence of title information on understanding and appreciation of paintings. Acta Psychologica, 121, 176–198.
Russell, P. A., & Milne S. (1997). Meaningfulness and hedonic value of paintings: Effects of titles. Empirical Studies of the Arts, 15, 61–73.
Silvia, P. J. (2009). Looking past pleasure: Anger, confusion, disgust, pride, surprise, and other unusual aesthetic emotions. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 3, 48–51.
Smith, J. K., & Smith, L. F. (2001). Spending time on art. Empirical Studies in the Arts, 19, 229–236.
Smith, J. K., & Tinio, P. P. L. (2014). Introduction by the editors. In P. P. L. Tinio & J. Smith (Eds.). The Cambridge Handbook of the Psychology of Aesthetics and the Arts (p. 3). London: Cambridge University Press.