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17 September 2014
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Does the art you enjoy match your personality?

By Dr Stian Reimers

Two wine glasses - John Singer Sargent
The most highly rated painting
in the experiment.

If you like a party, you may prefer abstract paintings. The results of our online experiment into art preference and personality type suggest that extraverts prefer works by artists who don't attempt to paint reality.

Art preference and personality type

We designed the experiment to look at whether people with different personality types like different forms of art. In previous studies researchers have found that:

  • People who prefer abstract art tend to be more conservative, dogmatic, and are often sensation seekers.
  • People who are open to new experiences are less likely to enjoy looking at realistic paintings. They seek something more atypical and challenging.
  • People with low emotional stability tend to prefer abstract and pop-art paintings.
  • People who score high in agreeableness like paintings and tend to dislike forms like pop-art.
  • People who like representational paintings may also be more conscientious than average.
Women in veils, costume worn by those of the Shiite faith in Persia during the Safavid era - uknown artist
The painting with the lowest rating
in the experiment.

It's less clear how extraversion ties in with painting preference. Some researchers have found that extraverts like modern art more than introverts, but others have found exactly the opposite pattern.

Overall, there has been a lot of research about personality and art preference. In many cases the jury is still out on exactly how personality affects preference. One of the aims of the experiment was to directly address some of the most controversial issues.

The experiment

We chose six distinct painting styles for the experiment:

  • Impressionism
  • Abstract
  • Japanese art
  • Islamic art
  • Northern Renaissance
  • Cubism.

See the art used in the test

Some types, like Japanese art, had been used in previous personality experiments while others were used for the first time.

In the first part of the experiment, test-takers were asked to rate the paintings and the artists. They were also asked to write words that described how the paintings made them feel.

In the second part they were asked to take a personality test, which incorporates a set of personality traits– the Five Factor model. It measures the following:

  • extraversion
  • agreeableness
  • conscientiousness
  • emotional stability
  • intellectualism.

This is one of the most popular forms of personality profile, partly because the different factors are largely independent of each other. For example, looking at a person's score on agreeableness shouldn't tell you anything about how they'll score on extraversion.

In addition to the five-factor model traits, we also used a short set of questions measuring emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is more controversial than the other traits, but some researchers believe that people with higher emotional intelligence have a greater insight into people's feelings and drives, including their own. In short, people with high emotional intelligence are the sorts of people we might expect to engage with the subtle complexities of art.

How reliable is the personality profile?

Our results

The main findings of this experiment were that extraverts preferred abstract and cubist art relative to more representational forms like Impressionism and Japanese art. There are theories of extraversion that suggest introverts crave less external stimulation than extraverts, and these results back up theories of this type. It's likely that, for many people, more modern paintings tend to have a higher visual impact than traditional forms or art, which are more widely accepted as the norm. Of course, the impact a piece of art has on an individual can never be predicted.

The opposite was true for agreeableness. People who were more agreeable tended to prefer Impressionism and Japanese art, whereas people who were less agreeable liked what you might call more challenging art – Abstract, Cubism, Islamic and Renaissance. Intellectuals – those open to new aesthetic experiences – tended to avoid Impressionism, possibly because it was too familiar.

These are preliminary results. Next I'll need to analyse the results further in order to prepare them for submission to a peer-reviewed journal. With the tens of thousands of people having taken part in the experiment, it's likely that the results will make a significant contribution to research in this area.

How did people group the art?

In selecting art for the experiment, we chose six distinct schools. Some types, like Japanese art, had been used in previous experiments on personality. For others this was the first time the link with personality had been tested.

But did people group every painting in a school consistently? Well, yes and no. People saw cubist, Japanese, impressionist and Islamic art as distinct types when it came to rating them. However the Abstract style was rated very similarly to cubist art: People who liked Cubism also liked Abstract. This is not surprising given the similarity of styles and the similar era in which they were painted.

The least consistently rated category was the Renaissance art. This may well be down to the fact that Renaissance art is fairly unfamiliar to many people and has a wide range of subjects, which makes it harder to pin down. Or it could be that with a larger number of paintings, the differences in style would become more obvious.

What did people think of the art?

Impressionism was easily the most popular form of art in the experiment. It was followed closely by Japanese art, with Cubism and Abstract trailing further down the list. Only 10 per cent of people who completed the experiment preferred Renaissance or Islamic art.

Some of people's preferences must be down to the ease with which one can make sense of an image. But there must also be an effect of the familiarity people have with a particular school of art. The more modern styles are seen everywhere, and Japanese art is also extremely popular. Islamic and Renaissance art are less familiar, which might explain why they were less highly rated.

Do artists and scientists perceive art differently?

How reliable is the personality profile?

Find out about the art used in the test

Dr Stian Reimers, a research fellow in experimental psychology at the University of Warwick, helped the BBC design the art preference and psychology experiment.

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