Take a look at these two shapes. Which appears more “joyful”? Which appears fearful?
How about these shapes? Which is angrier? Which appears to be suffering more?
If you’re like most people, the shapes that appear to be less stable (number 2 in the figures above) are also more fearful. Those that are rotated more from the vertical position (again, number 2 in the figures) are more suffering and less angry.
Assigning emotions to shapes is nothing new. In experiments as early as the 1940s, individuals have been found to consistently apply the same emotions to shapes in schematic cartoons: “angry” triangles and “loving” circles. But only one study had attempted to see if people consistently assigned emotions to static shapes based on the appearance of dynamic forces.
In that study, participants viewing two slashes ( / / ) tended to see the slash leaning towards the other as “bossy,” while the one leaning away was “submissive.” In 2005, Irena Pavlova, Arseny Sokolov, and Alexander Sokolov made the first study of emotions and dynamics in single shapes: they showed participants triangles, ovals, and lines in a variety of orientations, and asked them to rate the figures for the emotions they conveyed.
The triangle balanced on its point (Number 1 in the above figure) or lying on its side was viewed as the most stable, and similarly, the oval balanced on either its end or its side was seen as stable as well. Instability correlated significantly in these figures with perceived suffering and fear.
For the triangle, the oval, and the line, there was a significant negative correlation between joy and the degree of rotation from vertical: the more vertical, the more joyous the figure appeared. This correlation held for anger as well, but only in the case of the oval and the line.
Pavlova and her colleagues argue that the implied imbalance in the pictures of static objects is what leads individuals to attribute emotion to them. They note as well that neural imaging of patients with Asperger Syndrome shows that the parieto-frontal circuits in these individuals are activated differently compared to normal individuals. Since one symptom of Asperger Syndrome is an inability to detect emotional states of others, the team suggests that there is a direct link between perception of the physical orientation of an object and perception of emotional states.
This finding has implications for the field of art as well. If certain shapes are indeed associated with emotions, then this may partially explain the appeal of abstract art. Rather than being a seemingly random collection of shapes, abstract art may evoke common emotions in many viewers.
Pavlova, M., Sokolov, A.A., & Sokolov, A. (2005). Perceived dynamics of static images enables emotional attribution. Perception, 34, 1107-1116.