Beauty, novelty and threat

By Gordon Rugg

In an earlier article in this short series, we looked at what happens when you treat two concepts such as liking and disliking as two separate scales, rather than as opposite ends on a single scale. The answer was that often this makes sense of results which would otherwise look contradictory.

In another article, we looked at what happens when you apply this approach to the well established literature on perceptions of attractiveness. The result was that this provided a clear, simple way of explaining an apparent paradox within the literature on perceptions of attractiveness in human faces.

Covering these topics raised a lot of other questions, which we’ll tackle in this article. The questions relate to three main themes:

  • Social context
  • Cognitive load
  • Perceptions of novelty and threat

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The apparent attraction of average faces

By Gordon Rugg

In a previous article, we looked at what happens when you take two concepts that are normally viewed as opposites, and instead treat them as two separate concepts. We used the example of what happens when you treat liking and disliking as two separate concepts, and ask people to rate items in relation to both liking and disliking.

The result is that people are willing and able to do so. The image below shows types of response that we’ve seen in real data.

Item A has been rated low both for liking and for disliking; it’s just boring, with little to be said for or against it.

Item B has been rated high both for liking and for disliking; it produces strong but ambivalent feelings. An example that we saw involved university departmental websites, where some were strongly liked because they signalled high quality, but simultaneously strongly disliked because that same signal of high quality was viewed as implying unforgivingly high expectations.

Item C has been rated high like/low dislike by some participants, and low like/high dislike by others. This is informally known in the UK as the Marmite effect, where people either love something or hate it, with few people in between.

This approach of uncoupling apparent opposites is well established in some fields, but isn’t yet widely known outside them. We’ve been using it for a while in software evaluation, where it’s invaluable for improving software mockups before committing to the final design. We’ve also blogged about ways of using it to represent expressive and instrumental behaviour; handedness; and gender roles, going back to the literature where we first encountered it, in Bem’s work on androgyny (Bem, 1974).

The advantages of using this approach are clear when you see examples. In the next section, we’ll look at the background theory on which it works. We’ll then apply it to an apparently paradoxical finding about facial attractiveness, to show how the underlying issues can be swiftly and easily teased apart via this representation.

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When liking and disliking aren’t opposites

By Gordon Rugg

Treating liking and disliking as opposite ends of the same scale looks so obvious that few people ever think about it. They’ve been viewed as opposites since at least Classical times, when Catullus wrote about the paradox of loving and hating the same person. However, this approach doesn’t actually work very well when you try applying it systematically in contexts like surveys or evaluation or market research. There are usually pros and cons that you’re asking the respondent to compress down into a single number, and respondents usually don’t look very happy about it.

So what happens if you instead try treating liking and disliking as two separate scales? The answer is that it gives you a lot of powerful new insights, because liking and disliking are often not opposites.

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Desire, novelty, and the attractions of safe Necker shifts

By Gordon Rugg

So what do wireframe Necker cubes have to do with enigmatic facial beauty, Rothko paintings, Sudoku, and video games? The answer is: Quite a lot.

In this article I’ll look at the deep structure of some popular passtimes, and consider some of the implications. This is the first in a short series of articles about the deep structures of desire.

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