Taking centre stage: research finds that preferences for artworks depends on location and where people look last

The preference for works of art or even consumer items is often thought to remain in the eye of the beholder – eyetracking research suggests a correlation between the amount a person looks at an object and their preference for it. Generally, and not entirely unsurprisingly, the more you like the more you look, but also, the more you look the more you like (so looking at something more can cause more liking and not just be a symptom of preference).

However, a team of Psychologists at the Universities of East London, Oxford and Chester have discovered that the story is not always so simple: When shown a horizontal array of identical paintings, people are more likely to prefer the one in the middle. Dr Volker Thoma, a senior lecturer in the School of Psychology at UEL, and his team focused on measuring the eye movements of people when presented with 3 works of art directly in front of them. The 3 pictures were either all identical or differed only slightly.

The research found that when asked for their preference people seem to “pick” the one in the middle – but only when the paintings were identical, and when they liked them as a whole and had a positive perception of them (it didn’t work this way if they thought all the pictures were duff).

Previous studies from other laboratories had suggested that people’s preference for a central option is because people naturally tend to look more in the centre, straight ahead. However, the UEL research indicates that this conclusion is not always correct, as Volker Thoma explains:

“Importantly, we measured people’s eye movements with eye-tracking, and the eyetracking showed that people did not simply always prefer the object they look at most. They generally choose the middle item only when it matters to them – in this case if they liked the painting. This suggests people are guided or biased by a mental rule of “pick the centre one”, which may be a result of where usually important things (or people) are presented”.

Overall, the results showed that when the artworks were positive and identical the participants’ last fixation predicted preference for the central art-work, whereas the fixation duration predicted preference when the images were different.

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