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Effort after meaning and the hedonic value of paintings.

The question of why works of art have a pervasive and enduring appeal is a complex one, implicating processes operating at neuropsychological, psychological, social, and cultural levels (Gupchik, 1992; Russell, Deregowski, & Kinnear, 1997). At the psychological level, interest in the perceptual and affective processes underlying response to works of art has centred particularly on the stimulus correlates of the hedonic properties of artworks. Berlyne's influential analysis (Berlyne, 1971, 1974) linked hedonic value to three main classes of stimulus variable: collative variables (particularly novelty and complexity), psychophysical variables (such as intensity and brightness) and ecological variables (meaningfulness and associative value).

In recent years, experimental studies of the hedonic value of paintings have emphasized the importance of ecological variables. Preference for representational or semi-abstract paintings has been found to be a positive function of their perceived meaningfulness, defined in terms of meaningfulness ratings (Martindale, Moore, & Borkum, 1990) or their degree of photographic likeness (Hekkert & van Wieringen, 1990). This association between hedonic value and meaningfulness is consistent with the general theory that part of the pleasure derived from looking at a painting stems from having grasped its meaning and 'understood' it. Berlyne's interest in the determinants of the hedonic value of stimuli was rooted in Bartlett's (1932) concept of effort after meaning, the tendency to make sense of perceptions by setting them in the context of past experience (Cupchik, 1992). More recently, Martindale (1984) proposed that the hedonic value of stimuli is associated with the activation of cognitive representations involved in the interpretation of their meaning. Effort after meaning also ties in with evolutionary theories of mind that emphasize the adaptive, functional capacity of the brain for classifying sensory input by assimilating it into existing schemata, and the reinforcing consequences of this classificatory process (Humphrey, 1973, 1983; Pinker, 1997). Both Humphrey and Pinker suggest that artworks tap into perceptual and affective mechanisms that evolved originally to serve this classificatory capacity in other contexts. Effort after meaning also links with the concept of an artwork as a message from the artist that can be received and understood by its audience (Konecni, 1984).

As a general working hypothesis, then, effort after meaning suggests that some of the pleasure derived from looking at a painting stems from successfully interpreting it and 'picking up the artist's message'. One way of testing this hypothesis is to manipulate the information available to the viewer. Information that helps in the interpretation of a painting should make the painting more meaningful and enhance its hedonic value. It is reasonable to assume that this effect will be most marked for paintings where prima fade meaningfulness is relatively low, and the information can make a significant contribution to helping the viewer towards a satisfactory interpretation. This condition may be met particularly by abstract or semi-abstract paintings, where the representational element is low and the interpretational challenge high. In a test of these predictions, Russell and Milne (1997) found that abstract and semi-abstract paintings were rated as more meaningful when they were accompanied by their titles, as o pposed to without titles. This finding is consistent with the assumption that titles carry information and that this information aids meaningful interpretation of the paintings. Contrary to the effort after meaning hypothesis, however, the titles effect was not accompanied by an increase in the hedonic value of the paintings.

Arguably, however, Russell and Milne's failure to find support for the effort after meaning hypothesis is not critical, for several reasons. One is that the hedonic value of a painting is likely to be influenced by a number of other factors, in addition to any pleasure deriving from having grasped its meaning. These factors could include collative and psychophysical variables, the painting's subject matter, style, and colour, and the skill with which it has been painted. Particularly if the increment in hedonic value produced by titles is relatively small, this effect may be swamped by these other influences. Another consideration is that the title effect may vary between paintings. If the meaning of a painting is relatively obvious to begin with, any small increase in meaningfulness produced by its title may not significantly increase hedonic value. In other cases, the clarification of meaning by a title might actually be associated with a decrease in hedonic value, if the title gives a clue that fails to ta lly with the viewer's initial impression of what the painting is about or indicates that the painting is unpleasant or distasteful in some way.

The present experiments attempted to clarify the status of the effort after meaning hypothesis by examining the effects of providing information about paintings over and above that provided by their titles. Paintings displayed in galleries or reproduced in books and catalogues are often accompanied not just by the artist's name and the painting's title but also by information aimed at increasing the viewer's understanding of the painting. This information may, for example, draw attention to specific aspects of the painting or explain the artist's intentions. This kind of information should provide a better basis than the title alone for the interpretation of a painting and so provide a more powerful test of the effort after meaning hypothesis.

There were two main experimental predictions: first, that additional information about a painting would increase its meaningfulness over and above the increment produced by its title; and second, that if the effort after meaning hypothesis is correct, this increase in meaningfulness should be accompanied by an increase in the painting's hedonic value.

A further aim was a more finely grained study of the effects of titles and additional information on meaningfulness and hedonic value by including painting as a variable in the analysis. This should show whether the effects are consistent across paintings or whether some paintings show a better fit to the effort after meaning hypothesis than others.


The first experiment used a between-participants design. Participants rated 12 paintings for either meaningfulness or hedonic value (pleasingness), under one of three conditions varying in the amount of information accompanying each painting. These conditions were a control condition, in which no information was provided, a title condition, in which the title of the painting and the artist's name were provided, and a description condition, in which a brief explanatory description accompanied the painting, in addition to the title and artist's name.



The participants were 120 undergraduates (77 women and 43 men) taking a first-year course in psychology. The mean age of the sample was 22.05 years, with a SD of 8.73 years.


Twelve high-quality reproductions of abstract and semi-abstract paintings by 12 different artists, from the period 1900-1960, were used. The reproductions had longest sides in the range 170-230 mm, depending on the original dimensions. They were picked randomly from a sample of 20 paintings chosen by Russell and Milne (1997) as representing a range of degree of abstractness and putative clarity of meaning and as having appropriate titles. The sample included highly abstract works, such as Movement of Colour in Construction (Alexandra Exter, 1921), which consists of nonrepresentational shapes and blocks of colour in a seemingly random arrangement. Others were 'semi-abstract', containing some recognizable elements but not painted realistically, or depicted along with non-representational elements or juxtaposed in nonrealistic ways, such as Mandolin (George Braque, 1910), a distorted depiction of a mandolin in the Cubist style.

For each painting, there was an associated description of approximately 50 words designed to facilitate the viewer's understanding of it. These descriptions were compiled by the experimenter from information found in art books and on the Internet. Examples of the descriptions are:

Shadow Country (Yves Tanguy, 1927). Tanguy was a French-born American Surrealist who regarded himself as a recording apparatus' for the voice of the unconscious mind. His imagery is highly distinctive, featuring half-marine and half-lunar landscapes in which amorphous, nameless objects, and imaginary life-forms Proliferate in a spectral dreamspace.

Mechanical Elements (Femand Leger, 1924). Leger was greatly influenced by the technology of the cinema. In this work, he provides an analogy between the precision of a work of art and the precision of a machine. We are presented with multiple abstract curves and rectangles, which join up with close-cropped references to machines. The whole constitutes a keyhole view of collaged film machinery.


Participants were tested individually. They were given the paintings as a sheaf, to be leafed through, and a set of printed instructions. In the title condition, each painting was accompanied by its title and the artist's name. In the description condition, these two pieces of information were presented, together with the description. The information about each painting was printed on the same sheet as the painting, immediately below it. In the control condition, the painting was presented alone, without any information. Forty participants were assigned randomly to each of the three condition groups. Within each condition group, 20 participants rated the paintings for meaningfulness and 20 for pleasingness. Paintings were presented in a different random order for each participant.

The instructions for the meaningfulness group were as follows.

Look at each of the paintings in turn and consider how meaningful it is to you--that is, to what extent you are able to understand it, make sense of it and see what it represents. In coming to a decision, try to compare the painting with other paintings you have encountered in your life. In relation to those paintings, how meaningful is this particular painting? There is no right or wrong answer--we are simply interested in your personal opinion.

The instructions for the pleasingness group were similar, with the evaluative word changed and the elaboration of the pleasingness instruction altered to 'that is, to what extent you find looking at it a pleasing experience'. Ratings were made on a 7-point scale, with 1 low and 7 high.

Participants were told to look through the set of paintings, for as long as they wished, before starting their ratings and to take as long as they wished over their ratings. At the looking-through stage, a small number of participants indicated having seen one or more of the paintings before, and these participants were excluded from the study.


The data were analysed using mixed model ANOVAs with condition (3 levels: description, title and control) as a between-participants factor and painting (12 levels) as a within-participants factor, with Greenhouse-Geisser correction for departure from sphericity where appropriate.


For meaningfulness, the main effect of condition failed to reach significance, although it approached it, F(2, 57) = 2.65, p = .08. The means for the control, title, and description conditions were 3.35, 3.61, and 3.88, respectively. The effect of painting was significant, F(8.09, 461) = 14.28, p< .001, indicating differences in meaningfulness between individual paintings. The condition x painting interaction was also significant, F(16.2, 461) = 2.10, p = .007, indicating that the effect of condition varied between paintings. This interaction was explored using one-way ANOVAs with condition as the between-participants factor, applied to each painting separately. Four of the paintings showed a significant condition effect. The data for these paintings are summarized in Table 1. In all four cases, the lowest mean was in the control condition and the highest in the description condition, with the title condition mean intermediate. Also, in all four cases, the control and description condition means were signific antly different (Tukey HSD test, p = .015 or better).


For pleasingness, the main effect of condition failed to reach significance, F(2, 57) = 0.25, p = .78, with the means for the control, title, and description conditions being 3.52, 3.54, and 3.39, respectively. The effect of painting was significant, F(7.89, 450) 9.51, p <.001, as was the condition x painting interaction, F(15.77, 450) = 2.37, p = .002. Exploring this interaction using one-way ANOVAs (as for meaningfulness above) revealed that none of the four paintings identified above as showing a significant condition effect on the meaningfulness measure showed a significant condition effect on pleasingness (the means are shown in Table 1). The interaction stemmed from one of the other paintings, which was the only one to show a condition effect, F(2, 57) = 4.17, p = .02. For this painting, Burial (George Grosz, 1917-1918), the means for the control, title, and description conditions were 3.55, 4.05, and 2.50, respectively, with the description mean being significantly lower than the title mean (Tukey HSD test, p = .017) and the other two means not significantly different from one another.

Relationship between meaningfulness and pleasingness

The correlation between the two dependent variables was examined using Pearson coefficients computed from the mean rating for each painting under each of the three information conditions. The meaningfulness ratings for the control, title and description conditions were positively intercorrelated, in the range +.54 (p =.07) to +.89 (p <.001). The pleasingness ratings were similarly intercorrelated, although in this case, the correlations were smaller, on average, ranging from +.40 (p=.20) to +.68 (p=.01). These intercorrelations contrast strongly with the pattern of correlations of meaningfulness with pleasingness, which were all smaller and not significant, ranging from +.01 to -.34. Although nonsignificant correlations here might reflect curvilinear relationships between the variables, inspection of scattergrams (not presented) provided no evidence of curvilinearity (the small number of paintings precludes a formal analysis of departure from linearity).


The results provide a measure of support for the prediction that presenting information along with the paintings would increase their perceived meaningfulness. There was a marginal overall increase in perceived meaningfulness as a function of the amount of information provided (control <title <description) and a stronger effect for four of the paintings individually. Differences in the strength of the effect between paintings may reflect differences in the degree of interpretational challenge they pose or in the effectiveness of the information supplied.

The effects of information on pleasingness, however, did not accord with the effort after meaning hypothesis. Not only was the overall condition effect not significant but, more tellingly, even the four paintings showing an information effect for meaningfulness, failed to show a corresponding effect for pleasingness. The independence of meaningfulness and pleasingness, further confirmed by the lack of between-painting correlations for these two measures, is particularly striking given that there were large, significant differences between the paintings on both measures. Clearly, pleasingness differences between the paintings are linked to factors other than the perceived meaningfulness differences between them.

The results confirm the finding of Russell and Milne (1997) that titles do not enhance the hedonic value of paintings and further show that neither is hedonic value increased by providing additional information, over and above titles.


The second experiment was run to check on the possibility that the failure to detect any effect of information on hedonic value in Expt 1 might be due to the use of a relatively insensitive between-participants experimental design. The potential limitations of a between-participants design can be seen by considering the strategies that participants might use in rating a set of items such as paintings (Russell & Gray, 1994). A 'relative' strategy involves comparing the paintings only with one another, so that the rating for each painting reflects its standing relative to the other paintings in the set being evaluated. An 'absolute' strategy in contrast, involves comparing the paintings with other paintings not contained in the target set, specifically others remembered from having been seen in the past. Any tendency for participants to incline towards a relative strategy will reduce the chances of detecting effects of independent variables in between-participant design experiments. In the extreme case, where e ach painting receives a rating that reflects only its standing relative to the others in the set, neither the individual ratings nor the mean rating for the set will be influenced by the particular condition under which the rating is carried out (e.g. control or information). If participants rate absolutely, however, the ratings are made against an external yardstick, and, as long as this yardstick is the same for the different conditions, condition effects should be detectable.

The extent to which raters tend towards one or other of these strategies may depend upon various factors, including the demand characteristics of the experiment and the instructions given (Russell & Gray, 1994). In Expt 1, participants were encouraged to use an absolute strategy by instructing them to compare the paintings with others they had encountered in their lives. But if participants ignore this instruction, or find it difficult to adhere to, the between-participants design may be insensitive to differences between the information conditions. This might explain the absence of condition effects for pleasingness (Expt 1 and Russell & Milne, 1997), particularly if these effects are weak, relative to other influences on Pleasingness, and weaker than those for meaningfulness.

This problem can be overcome by a within-participants design, in which each participant has the opportunity to compare each painting under each of the information conditions. This design was adopted in Expt 2, which involved control and description conditions (the title condition was omitted). In this experiment, then, participants again rated the paintings for either meaningfulness or pleasingness, but each participant rated twice. On the first occasion, the paintings were rated under the control condition (no information) and on the second occasion under the description condition (brief description plus title and artist's name).

A drawback with a within-participant design, however, is that ratings made under one condition might be influenced by ratings previously made under the other condition. This problem is compounded in the present case by the fact that the control condition must always precede the description condition (the effect of having given a description cannot be undone), so that condition effects are potentially confounded with rating order effects (changes in ratings associated with rating the paintings on a second occasion). A partial solution to this problem is to control for order effects with a group of participants who do both of their ratings under the control (no information) condition: any changes in ratings for this group must be order effects.



The participants were a further 45 undergraduates (29 women and 16 men) taking a first-year course in psychology. The mean age of the sample was 19.64 years, with a SD of 2.39 years.


The 12 paintings from Expt 1 were used.


The procedure was broadly similar to that of Expt 1. Participants were divided into three groups of 15. These groups were: meaningfulness/description; pleasingness/description; and pleasingness/control. All participants rated the set of paintings on two occasions. On the first occasion, the ratings (either meaningfulness or pleasingness, depending on group) were made under the control condition (no information). On the second occasion, participants in the two description groups rated the paintings under the description condition (description plus title and artist's name), while those in the control group again rated the paintings under the control condition. The paintings were presented in a different random order for each participant and for each rating occasion.

You are now asked to go through the set of paintings and rate them again. This time, each painting will be accompanied by some information about it. The question we are interested in is: Does the accompanying information: Increase the meaningfulness of the painting for you?; Decrease the meaningfulness for you?; Or make no difference to the meaningfulness for you? Again, there is no right or wrong answer--we are simply interested in your personal opinion. Also, please again give the painting a meaningfulness rating from 1-7, using the same scale as before. Don't worry if you are unable to remember your previous rating--it is the current one we are interested in here.

The meaningfulness and pleasingness ratings instructions on the first rating occasion were identical to those used in Expt 1. On the second rating occasion, the instructions for the meaningfulness group were as follows:

The instructions for the pleasingness/description group were identical except that they referred to pleasingness. The instructions for the pleasingness/control group were also identical except that the sentence relating to accompanying information was omitted, and participants were asked 'The question we are interested in is: Does seeing the painting again: Increase?. . . etc.'


The data consisted of the first and second ratings of meaningfulness or pleasingness and the participants' reports of an 'increase', 'decrease' or 'no difference' in meaningfulness or pleasingness on the second occasion of seeing the paintings.

Participants' reports

The percentages of responses reporting an increase on the second occasion (across the 12 paintings and 15 participants) were 49, 39, and 25 for the meaningfulness/ description, pleasingness/description, and pleasingness/control groups, respectively. The crucial comparison is between the pleasingness/description and pleasingness/ control conditions, since if the description increases pleasingness, over and above any effect due to repeated rating, the percentage should be significantly higher for the pleasingness/description group. A within-paintings t test confirmed that this was the case, t(11)=2.43,p = .03.


The meaningfulness ratings were analysed using a within-participants ANOVA with rating (first and second) and painting (12 levels) as factors. There was a significant increase in meaningfulness from the first to second ratings (means 3.38 and 3.94, respectively), F(1, 14)= 19.89, p<.001. The paintings effect was also significant, F(11,65.50) = 5.69, p<.001. There was no significant rating x painting interaction: F(5.27, 73.82) = 1.80,p =.12.


The pleasingness ratings were analysed by a mixed model ANOVA with condition (two levels: description and control) as a between-participants factor and rating (first and second) and painting (12 levels) as within-participants factors. The condition effect was not significant (the means for the description and control groups were 3.44 and 3.48, respectively), F(1, 28) = 0.32, p = .86. There was, however, a significant increase in pleasingness from the first to second ratings (means 3.39 and 3.53, respectively), F(1, 28) = 6.39, p = .02. The interaction between rating and condition was also significant, F(1, 28) = 6.88, p = .01. This interaction was examined using within participant ANOVAs to assess the strength of the ratings effects for the description and control conditions separately. These analyses indicated that the overall main effect of rating reflected an increase from first to second ratings in the description condition only (means 3.29 and 3.59, respectively): F(1, 14) = 8.62, p = .01. For the contro l condition, the first and second ratings were not significantly different (the mean was 3.48 in both cases), F(1, 14) = 0.01, p = .92.

As in Expt 1, the main ANOVA revealed pleasingness differences between the paintings: F(5.18, 145) = 6.95,p<.001. The paintings factor did not, however, interact with either condition or rating, and the three-way interaction was not significant. The absence of a significant interaction between paintings and rating was confirmed in the separate analyses for the description and control groups. The absence of interactions involving the paintings factor indicates that the effects of the descriptions on the ratings were consistent across paintings. For the pleasingness/description group, inspection of the means for the individual paintings revealed an increased in pleasingness from the first (control) rating to the second (description) rating for 9 of the 12 paintings. For the three paintings that did not show this increase in pleasingness, the description means were slightly, but not (in the light of the absence of an interaction) significantly lower than the control means. Of these three paintings, one, Burial, was the painting for which, in Expt 1, the description significantly reduced pleasingness, relative to the title only condition. In that experiment, the mean pleasingness of this painting was also lower in the description condition than in the control condition, but not significantly so, a finding replicated in Expt 2.


The significant increase in meaningfulness associated with the provision of information about the paintings accords with the prediction. Although, for meaningfulness, there was no control for the effect of rating the paintings on a second occasion, the increase in meaningfulness is consistent with the effects reported in between-participant design experiments where the increase cannot be due to repeated rating (Russell & Mime, 1997 and the marginal effect found in Expt 1). The strongly significant effect, compared with the marginal effect in Expt 1, is also consistent with the assumption that a within participants design provides a more sensitive test of the effect of information.

Importantly, in this experiment, the provision of information was also associated with a significant increase in pleasingness. Furthermore, for pleasingness, the presence of a control for the effects of a second rating permits the firm conclusion that the increase was due to the information, and not to repeated rating.


The results of Expt 2 suggest that, given appropriate, within-participants methodology it is possible to detect an increase in the hedonic value of a painting associated with information that aids its interpretation and heightens its meaningfulness. This effect is consistent with the effort after meaning hypothesis.

Failure to detect this kind of effect in other experiments (Expt 1 and Russell & Milne, 1997) may be the result of a between-participants methodology that is relatively insensitive to the effects of different evaluative conditions. Future experiments in this and other areas of experimental aesthetics may benefit from a consideration of the use of within-participants designs.

It should be noted, however, that even in Expt 2, the increases in meaningfulness and hedonic value, although statistically significant, were relatively small relative to the variations between paintings on these measures. This is consistent with the expectation that meaningfulness will be simply one of many influences on hedonic value.

The absence of significant condition x painting interactions on the pleasingness measure in Expt 2 suggests that, for this particular sample of paintings, the effects of providing information were consistent across paintings. The data do, however, contain some indications that the effects of information might vary between paintings. The pattern of Expt 1 means for one painting, Burial (George Grosz), is particularly revealing. This painting is a phantasmagoric depiction of a funeral parade. Supplying its title increased its hedonic value, presumably by helping to clarify the painting's cryptic imagery The addition of the description to the title, however, reduced the hedonic value again. The decremental effect of the description may be attributable to the fact that it explains that the painting was produced after the artist had been committed to a psychiatric hospital with a mental breakdown following having witnessed appalling casualties while fighting in the First World War. That is, the description, while facilitating further interpretation, leads the viewer to realize that its images are disturbing or unpleasant.

In the light of the interpretation of the results for this particular painting, future research might profitably explore the effects of information on the hedonic value of different paintings, including the comparison of paintings having pleasant and positive associations with those having unpleasant and negative ones. A further factor for investigation is the degree of abstractness of paintings. The relatively abstract paintings in the present experiments were chosen precisely because their meanings were not immediately apparent. The effort after meaning hypothesis predicts, however, that the effects of additional information on hedonic value will be less marked for more realistic, representational paintings with more obvious meanings.

A further consideration is that people may differ in their ability to discern meaning in paintings. In particular, artistic inclinations or training in art or art history might be associated with enhanced interpretative ability, relative to the ability of the presumably less aesthetically literate psychology undergraduates tested in the present experiments.

There is also the question of what it is that viewers are doing when they interpret the meaning of a painting. A painting can have multiple, perhaps overlapping, meanings on a variety of levels (Parsons, 1987; Russell & Milne, 1997). On one level, meaning relates to the relatively straightforward representational question of what it is that is physically depicted: for example, a person or a bowl of fruit. Even many so-called 'abstract' paintings appear to be intended as depictions, however cryptic or distorted. Among the paintings used in the present experiments, Jackson Pollock's Full Fathom Five, for example, is a classic abstract, consisting of seemingly random splashes and swirls of colour, devoid of representational content. But Pollock's titling of the painting, in conjunction with his use of colour--sea-green, black, and patches of white--leads the viewer to see it as a representation of water and of depth.

On other levels, paintings can have many different meanings, including those relating to 'expressive' qualities such as emotions (Blank, Massey, Gardner, & Winner, 1984). The various aspects of meaning may be interrelated, as illustrated in the present experiments by the participants' reactions to Burial, mentioned above, where information which furthered understanding of what the painting represented also brought into focus the painting's negative emotional aspects.

In the experiments reported here, the instructions specified meaning in terms of how well the participants were able to understand the painting, make sense of it, and see what it represented. This may have led to a specific emphasis on the representational aspect, at the expense of other aspects of meaning. An alternative approach would be to be less directive, allowing participants to use their own conception of meaning and to find whatever meaning they can in a painting. This approach might profitably be used in conjunction with question techniques to probe participants' interpretations of meaning (Parsons, 1987).

Finally, although the data presented here provide some supportive evidence for the effort after meaning hypothesis, affect associated with having understood a painting is likely to be just one of a potentially large number of cognitive and affective processes contributing to its hedonic value, including those relating to the collative and psychophysical properties of stimuli (Berlyne, 1971, 1974). A fuller understanding of the hedonic value of paintings awaits further research on what is likely to be a complex set of interactive processes.
Table 1

Mean meaningfulness ratings under each of the information conditions for
the four paintings showing a significant condition effect, together with
the results of the condition ANOVAs (Expt 1)

Painting             Control   Tide   Description  F(2, 27)    p

Mechanical Elements   2.60     3.00      4.35        8.77    <.001
(Leger)              (3.65)   (4.65)    (4.35)
Movement of Colour    2.35     2.95      3.75        5.55     .006
in Construction      (2.05)   (2.75)    (2.25)
Spatial Force         2.40     2.85      3.70        4.30     .018
Construction         (4.20)   (3.15)    (3.55)
Full Fathom Five      1.70     2.60      3.35        4.19     .02
(Pollock)            (4.05)   (3.95)    (4.00)

Note: Mean pleasingness ratings are shown in parentheses.


I am grateful to Susan Glass for compiling the painting descriptions and for testing some of the participants in Expt 1.

Received 25 June 2001; revised version received 19 December 2001


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Phil A. Russell *

* Requests for reprints should be addressed to Phil A Russell, Psychology Department, William Guild Building. University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen AB24 2UB, UK (e-mail:
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Date:Feb 1, 2003
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