Are human visual preferences older than humans themselves?

Our most recent paper shows that we (Homo sapiens) share our preference for curved contours with our closest living primate relatives: chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and gorillas (Gorilla gorilla). This suggests that such preference is not a unique evolutionary acquisition of our species. It seems, rather, that we inherited it from earlier primate ancestors – at least the common ancestor of humans, chimpanzees and gorillas, which lived in Africa some 7 or 8 million years ago.

The implication is that some of the building blocks of aesthetic appreciation – visual preference, in this case – might have a long evolutionary history in the primate lineage, predating the appearance of our own species by millions of years. Whatever the details of the origin of aesthetic appreciation, it seems it was the result of tweaking and integrating perceptual, cognitive, and emotional processes common to many extant and extinct primate species.

 

Abstract

Among the visual preferences that guide many everyday activities and decisions, from consumer choices to social judgment, preference for curved over sharp-angled contours is commonly thought to have played an adaptive role throughout human evolution, favoring the avoidance of potentially harmful objects. However, because nonhuman primates also exhibit preferences for certain visual qualities, it is conceivable that humans’ preference for curved contours is grounded on perceptual and cognitive mechanisms shared with extant nonhuman primate species. Here we aimed to determine whether nonhuman great apes and humans share a visual preference for curved over sharp-angled contours using a 2-alternative forced choice experimental paradigm under comparable conditions. Our results revealed that the human group and the great ape group indeed share a common preference for curved over sharp-angled contours, but that they differ in the manner and magnitude with which this preference is expressed behaviorally. These results suggest that humans’ visual preference for curved objects evolved from earlier primate species’ visual preferences, and that during this process it became stronger, but also more susceptible to the influence of higher cognitive processes and preference for other visual features.

Munar, E., Gómez-Puerto, G., Call, J., & Nadal, M. (2015). Common visual preference for curved contours in humans and great apesPLoS One, 10(11): e0141106

Do you know why you prefer the music you prefer?

A study in press at the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, carried out by Peter J. Rentfrow, Lewis R. Goldberg and Daniel J. Levitin suggests that our preferences for music are related with 5 different underlying factors.

Like with other art forms, we engage with music at many different levels. On the one hand, music emerges from a complex interaction of acoustic properties and auditory processes, but on the other it conveys emotions and has strong social connotations. One of the aims of researchers interested in musical preferences is to determine how people’s preferences for music are related with those levels. Some preferences might be influenced by music’s purely physical properties, like loudness, tempo, and so on, the emotion it conveys, or its social implications.

Rentfrow and colleagues’ objective was to characterize the underlying structure of affective reactions to music excerpts. To achieve this aim they performed four experiments. First, they assessed the preferences of a sample of Internet users for fragments of commercially released but unfamiliar pieces of music. Second, they repeated this process with a sub-sample of participants using new unreleased pieces of music. Third, they assessed the preference of a sample of university students for a subset of the new music pieces. Finally, the musical fragments were coded on a number of attributes that could be used to characterize each of the underlying preference factors.

The results of their first three experiments converge on the existence of 5 main factors underlying musical preference determined both by social connotations and particular auditory features: (i) Mellow, which comprises smooth and relaxing music; (ii) Unpretentious, including mostly singer-song writer music; (iii) Sophisticated, including music perceived as complex, intelligent and inspiring; (iv) Intense, with loud, energetic and forceful music; (v) Contemporary, which comprises rhythmic and percussive music.

Their fourth study revealed that each factor is characterized by a unique set of attributes that distinguishes it from the rest. Specifically, excerpts with high loading on the Mellow factor were perceived as slow, quiet, undistorted, romantic, relaxing, unaggressive, sad, simple and interesting. Unpretentious music is rated as undistorted, instrumental, loud, electric, not fast, somewhat romantic, relaxing, sad, unaggressive, not complicated, and not intelligent. Sophisticated includes mostly instrumental, not electric, not percussive, not distorted, not loud, intelligent, inspiring, complex, relaxing, romantic and unaggressive music. Intense music was perceived as distorted, electric, loud, percussive, dense, aggressive, not relaxing, not romantic, not intelligent, and not inspiring. Music with high loadings on the Contemporary factor was rated as percussive, electric, and not sad.

If one of neuroaesthetics’ aims is to clarify the biological underpinnings of people’s liking and preference for music, these results are of relevance for at least two reasons. First, researchers should probably take these factors into account when designing future studies. Second, it would interesting to ascertain the neurobiological concomitants of such factors, and to determine whether there are any differences among the neural correlates of the aesthetic experience of people whose preferences clearly differ across those factors.

Rentfrow, P. J., Goldberg, L. R., & Levitin, D. J. (2011, February 7). The Structure of Musical Preferences: A Five-Factor Model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0022406