The science behind aesthetic appeal

Why do we like what we like? Aesthetics plays an important role in our lives — like deciding what to wear to work in the morning or what to listen to on your morning commute — but little is known about how we make these judgments.

Amy Belfi, assistant professor of psychological science at S&T, is looking for answers to that question by gauging what people find aesthetically pleasing in poetry. Her research was recently published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.

Belfi and her team asked over 400 participants to read poems in two genres — haiku and sonnet — to try to understand which factors would best predict the poems’ appeal.

Not surprisingly, the readers disagreed on which poems they found appealing, but they could agree that it was the vividness of the poem’s imagery that led to their decision. Poems that evoked greater imagery were more pleasing.

Emotional valence — or how positive or negative a poem’s content is — also predicted appeal, although to a lesser degree. Poems with positive content were more appealing.

“While limited to poetry,” Belfi says, “our work sheds light into which components most influence our aesthetic judgments and paves the way for future research investigating how we make such judgments in other domains.”

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