What movie am I going to watch tonight? Can I get a room with an ocean view? Should I try to chat up the good-looking barkeeper? Our daily lives are filled with decisions that are at least in part based on aesthetic judgments. The Walter Benjamin [PD1] program of the German Research Foundation (DFG) has agreed to fund a two-year project that will allow Aenne Brielmann of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics to explore the [PD2] values that form the basis of aesthetic choices.
The mechanisms underlying aesthetic preferences have long been a subject of debate in empirical aesthetics. Do we maybe prefer stimuli that we can process with ease? We might choose to listen to music with chord progressions that are familiar from hundreds of chart hits because their structure is more fluently processed by our brains than, say, a twelve-tone composition. This is what processing fluency theories hypothesize. And yet, if this is true, why do we sometimes change our preferences or get bored of listening to the same old songs?
This is where learning theories come in: maybe we seek out new and challenging aesthetic experiences that allow us to learn, i.e., to adjust our brains to varied input, to be better prepared for future experiences?
"We think that the truth lies in a synthesis of these two competing theories,“ conjectures Brielmann. „Indeed, if we consider that the brain needs to adjust itself to process sensory input fluently both in the present and in the future, and if we analyze this adjustment from the perspective of more general ideas about how we learn in the face of rewards, then they integrate perfectly.”
Testing the dynamics of boredom
Brielmann and her collaborators have already started to test a simple model derived from this theory by replicating known results in empirical aesthetics, such as the dynamics of boredom.
Their next step is to address novel questions in new experiments: they will design a paradigm to investigate what individuals choose to consume, for how long, and at what cost.
In the simplest version of the experiment, participants will visit a “virtual gallery”: they will explore different collections of images, being free to look at one of them at leisure, or to move on to the next image. The researchers plan to measure the time the participants look at each image and to assess their explicit liking of the images.
As of now, there is no fully convincing explanation of why we like what we like, let alone a comprehensive theory that would also allow us to predict individual aesthetic choices. The group of researchers from Tübingen aims to close this gap and to answer these fundamental questions about people’s everyday choices.
Aenne Brielmann is looking forward to starting the project in August: “We know quite a bit about how people make decisions when it comes to money, food, or sex – but not so much about how they pick a movie or a new sofa. I’m excited to get a chance to understand what drives such everyday decisions.“