People Prefer Curves

Last year, I wrote two really long, boring posts about V.S. Ramachandran's ten principles of art. Those principles, mostly drawn from research on vision, included things like peak shift, symmetry, and contrast. It turns out Ramachandran may have missed a much simpler principle: people dig curves. At least, they prefer them to sharp angles.

Why curves? Well, Moshe Bar and Maital Neta1 hypothesize that "sharp transitions in a contour might convey a sense of threat, on either a conscious or a nonconscious level, and thus trigger a negative bias" (p. 645). This preference, they argue, should show up very quickly (after viewing something for a few milliseconds). In order to test this, they collected images of 140 pairs of familiar objects (including 23 pairs of English letters) specifically chosen because they were not associated with positive or negative emotions, along with 140 pairs of "meaningless patterns." In each pair of familiar objects and meaningless patterns, one of the items had curved contours, and the other had sharp contours. They also included 80 familiar objects with both sharp and curved contours. Examples of each item type can be seen in the figure below (Bar and Neta's Figure 1, p. 646).


They then presented each participant with one object or pattern from each pair for 84 ms, and asked them to indicate whether they liked or disliked the image. People liked the familiar objects more than the meaningless patterns, but for both item types, they liked the curved items more than the sharp-angled items. The items with both curved and sharp-angled contours fell in between the two.

So what does this mean, in practical terms? It probably does have some implications for art, and Bar and Neta note that it may also have implications for consumer behavior. It explains why I liked Jaguars more than Volvos in the 80s, at least. Since the evaluations took place after such short viewing times, the participants weren't aware of the reasons for their preferences. So it also means that curves and sharp-angles (and perhaps other features associated with threat or other negative emotions) may often influence our preferences or first impressions without us realizing it.

1Bar, M., & Neta, M. (2006). Humans prefer curved visual objects. Psychological Science, 17(8), 645-648.

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Extremly cool, for me as a graphic artist! this will be kept in mind. I like experiments such as these.

It explains why I liked Jaguars more than Volvos in the 80s

Or why guys like Vida Guerra more than Vogue fashion models. Zow!

I have reflected on this often. Whenever a design touches me deeply, it has nature-like curves, whether it is a pen or a building. 90-degree-based structures seem like an external, functional, imposition on natural beauty.

Another thing I wonder about is whether a mix might be more pleasant in some cases. Take that rectilinear couch -- it wouldn't look so harsh with rounded throw pillows, or pillows with a print that had curves, or the curves of the folds of a throw. If you put those things on the curvy couch, though -- too many curves.

The sharp lines of the couch would be like the frame of a painting (how much more monotonously right-angled can you get than picture frames?). I think I like sharp-edged big pieces for that reason: they're a nice frame or blank canvas to jazz up with ornamentation. If the background itself is alive, then there's just too much going on.

Agnostic, you know, I was thinking something similar about mixed objects (curves and angles). I suspect that, when judgments are after very brief exposures, like those in the experiment, curves will, on average, win out over mixes. However, with longer exposure times, you might get more complex "aesthetic" judgments that include things like contrast on top of curves and angles, and as a result, you might get some mixes that are preferred over some curves-only objects.

I like the design of this experiment. It seems to document the validity of techniques regarding generating emotional response through edges and lines I learned so long ago in art school. See, artists only seem to be crazy.

i just happened upon this blog and was excited to find that i was the subject of it! it's always nice to hear that your work reaches people. and don't worry MTran, scientists usually seem just as crazy.

Of course, one should believe this only after it is replicated by other labs. 14 people is a very small number of subjects to make such a generalization.

we've already replicated it with several other studies, all on their way to publication. so keep an eye out!

I was wondering about Wolfgang Köhler's "Kiki/Bouba" experiment.

Ramachandran and Hubbard (2001) suggest that the kiki/bouba effect has implications for the evolution of language, because it suggests that the naming of objects is not completely arbitrary. The rounded shape may most commonly be named bouba because the mouth makes a more rounded shape to produce that sound while a more taut, angular mouth shape is needed to make the sound kiki. The sounds of a K are harder and more forceful than those of a B, as well. The presence of these "synesthesia-like mappings" suggest that this effect might be the neurological basis for sound symbolism, in which sounds are non-arbitrarily mapped to objects and events in the world.

Now, Ramachandran is talking about the vocal speech, but I think that you can notice the synesthesic effect on the written form of "Kiki" and "Bouba" as well. "Kiki" has lots of angles and straight lines and "Bouba" has round shaped letters. Normal text has a mix of both of them, but during the process of development of the written language written texts might have gained some synesthetic properties. The first written language - Sumerian, was actually made only by straight lines and sharp corners, so who was the first man to make the letter "o" round and why do we write the word "Ball" with two letters of "L", which are so straight and don't convey the roundness of the ball and why do languages exist, which are not phonetically written down and do Japanese hieroglyphs have synesthetic properties? Interesting, isn't it?
Ramachandran, V. S. & E. M. Hubbard (2001), "Synaesthesia: A window into perception, thought and language", Journal of Consciousness Studies 8(12): 3-34

By Allar Kaasik (not verified) on 01 Mar 2007 #permalink