Menus Subscribe Search
pollockesque

Your toddler gets this about as much as you do. (PHOTO: LAUREN JADE GOUDIE/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Every Baby’s a Critic: Tots Drawn to Complex Art

• February 25, 2013 • 9:19 AM

Your toddler gets this about as much as you do. (PHOTO: LAUREN JADE GOUDIE/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research suggests some of our aesthetic preferences emerge by the time we’re eight months old.

Can you tell a real Jackson Pollock painting from a watered-down replica? If so, don’t feel too superior: So can your eight-month-old baby.

That’s one finding of a new study that compares the ways infants and adults look at abstract art. The research’s intent is to discover whether responses to such works are innate or learned. The tentative answer: a bit of each.

In a set of experiments, the eyes of both babies and adults were drawn to images featuring greater contrast and complexity. To the researchers, this suggests that while some aesthetic preferences are shaped by cultural forces, others are established very early in life, and most likely “reflect biological, evolutionary-based dispositions.”

In the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, Seattle-based researchers Ursula Krentz and Rachel Earl describe their search for “evidence of aesthetic appreciation of art in infants.” They chose 25 “relatively unknown nonrepresentational works of art” from the Museum of Modern Art online gallery.

Each was rated very highly in one specific aesthetic category: contrast, complexity, balance, focal point or texture. Pollock’s Shimmering Substance was included in the high-complexity group, while the high-contrast group included works by Joan Miro, Mark Rothko, and Georgia O’Keeffe.

The works were then “subtly altered” so that “the strong element of each was disrupted or attenuated.” The original and altered versions were placed side by side and inserted into a slide show, which was viewed by two groups of participants.

The first was comprised of 36 undergraduates from Seattle Pacific University; they were asked to designate which painting they preferred out of each pair. The second group featured 33 infants ranging in age from six to 10 months. Each was “held by a research assistant in front of two 15-inch computer monitors” while their faces were scanned to determine how long their held their gaze on each image.

The researchers found that “both adults and infants prefer art that retains its original complexity and contrast.” The babies spent more time looking at the original high-complexity, high-contrast works than the degraded versions; the students reported preferring the originals by a wide margin.

This suggests there are “parallels in aesthetic preference in infants and adults,” the researchers write.

Why certain factors catch our eye at such an early age—and retain their appeal into adulthood—is a matter of speculation, but Krentz and Earl have some ideas.

The captivating quality of contrast fits nicely with processing fluency theory, which states that information our brain can easily process is inherently appealing. (We understand it, so we like it.) These findings are consistent with those of an earlier study that found nine-month-olds prefer the works of Picasso, with their “sharp and accentuated contrasts,” to the subtler shadings of Monet.

The allure of complexity is harder to explain, but it surely says something about our species. The researchers speculate that “even as babies, we are driven by an innate desire to explore the unknown, and prefer the challenge and novelty of complexity over simplicity.”

But not all our aesthetic preferences are set in stone before our first birthday. Krentz and Earl note that, unlike the infants, the adults strongly preferred “the original artworks that preserved a strong focal point” over the degraded version that downplayed that quality.

The researchers suggest this may be a learned, culture-specific response. They point to previous research showing that paintings of urban scenes by American artists are dominated by “a few strong focal points,” whereas similar scenes painted by Japanese artists are not.

So while certain preferences may arise from cultural norms, this research suggests others are universal and “biologically driven.” For our ancient ancestors, the ability to understand and navigate a complex natural environment was a key to survival. Today, similar cognitive challenges still tickle our brains when they present themselves in a work of art.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


July 23 • 12:00 PM

Why Do We Love the ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’ Game?

It’s easy enough to turn yourself into a virtual celebrity, complete with fame and mansions—but it will likely cost you.


July 23 • 11:49 AM

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.


July 23 • 10:00 AM

Outing the Death-Drug Distributors

Calling all hackers: It’s time to go Assange on capital punishment.


July 23 • 8:00 AM

The Surprising Appeal of Products That Require Effort to Use

New research finds they enable consumers to re-establish a feeling that they’re in control of their lives.



July 23 • 6:00 AM

How the Other Half Lifts: What Your Workout Says About Your Social Class

Why can’t triathletes and weightlifters get along?


July 23 • 5:02 AM

Battle of the Public Intellectuals: Edward Glaeser vs. Richard Florida

On gentrification and housing costs.


July 23 • 4:00 AM

Our Fear of Immigrants

Why did a group of fourth graders rally in support of an undocumented classmate while the citizens of Murrieta, California, tried to stop immigrant children from entering their town?


July 22 • 4:00 PM

Can Meditation Really Slow Aging?

Is there real science in the spiritualism of meditation? Jo Marchant meets a Nobel Prize-winner who thinks so.



July 22 • 2:00 PM

The Alabama Judge Who Refuses to Let Desegregation Orders Go Ignored

A federal judge in Alabama says a local school board has failed to meet legal mandate to integrate.


July 22 • 12:00 PM

On the Destinations of Species

It’s almost always easier to cross international borders if you’re something other than human.


July 22 • 10:51 AM

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.


July 22 • 10:47 AM

Irrational Choice Theory: The LeBron James Migration From Miami to Cleveland

Return migrants to Cleveland have been coming home in large numbers for quite some time. It makes perfect sense.


July 22 • 9:32 AM

This Time, Scalia Was Right

President Obama’s recess appointments were wrong and, worse, dangerous.


July 22 • 8:00 AM

On Vegas Strip, Blackjack Rule Change Is Sleight of Hand

Casino operators are changing blackjack payouts to give the house an even greater advantage. Is this a sign that Vegas is on its way back from the recession, or that the Strip’s biggest players are trying to squeeze some more cash out of visitors before the well runs dry?


July 22 • 6:00 AM

Label Me Confused

How the words on a bag of food create more questions than answers.


July 22 • 5:07 AM

Doubly Victimized: The Shocking Prevalence of Violence Against Homeless Women

An especially vulnerable population is surveyed by researchers.


July 22 • 4:00 AM

New Evidence That Blacks Are Aging Faster Than Whites

A large study finds American blacks are, biologically, three years older than their white chronological counterparts.



July 21 • 4:00 PM

Do You Have to Learn How to Get High?

All drugs are socially constructed.


July 21 • 2:14 PM

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.