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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Cognitive load, kayaks, cartography and caricatures

By Gordon Rugg

This article is the first in a short series about things that look complex, but which derive from a few simple underlying principles. Often, those principles involve strategies for reducing cognitive load. These articles are speculative, but they give some interesting new insights.

I’ll start with Inuit tactile maps, because they make the underlying point particularly clearly. I’ll then look at how they share the same deep structure as satirical caricatures, and then consider the implications for other apparently complex and sophisticated human activities that are actually based on very simple processes.

By Gustav Holm, Vilhelm Garde – http://books.google.com/books?id=iDspAAAAYAAJ, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8386260

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Why Hollywood gets it wrong, part 4

By Gordon Rugg

The first article in this short series examined how conflicting conventions and requirements can lead to a movie being unrealistic. The second article explored the pressures driving movie scripts towards unrealistically high signal to noise ratios, with few of the extraneous details that occur in real conversations. The third in the series examined how and why movies depict a world which requires the word “very” to describe it.

All of those themes are arguably about movies either selecting versions of reality, or depicting versions of reality which are simplified and/or unlikely. Those versions are unrealistic, but not actively wrong in the strict sense of the word. The underlying common theme is that they’re simplifying reality and/or exaggerating features of it.

Today’s article looks at a different aspect, where movies and games portray the world in a way that flatters and reassures the audience, regardless of how simplified or exaggerated the accompanying portrayal of the world might be. This takes us into the concepts of vicarious experience, of vicarious affiliations, and of why Wagner’s music isn’t as bad as it sounds. It also takes us into the horribly addictive pleasures of TV tropes…

Horrors of the apocalypse, and Wagner…

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Why Hollywood gets it wrong, part 3

By Gordon Rugg

The first article in this short series examined how conflicting conventions and requirements can lead to a movie being unrealistic. The second article explored the pressures driving movie scripts towards unrealistically high signal to noise ratios, with few of the extraneous details that occur in real conversations.

Today’s article, the third in the series, addresses another way in which movies are different from reality. Movies depict a world which features the word “very” a lot. Sometimes it’s the characters who are very bad, or very good, or very attractive, or whatever; sometimes it’s the situations they encounter which are very exciting or very frightening or very memorable; sometimes it’s the settings which are very beautiful, or very downbeat, or very strange. Whatever the form that it takes, the “very” will almost always be in there somewhere prominent.

Why does this happen? It’s a phenomenon that’s well recognised in the media, well summed up in a quote attributed to Walt Disney, where he allegedly said that his animations could be better than reality.

When you think of it from that perspective, then it makes sense for movies to show something different from reality, since we can see reality easily enough every day without needing to watch a movie. This raises other questions, though, such as in which directions movies tend to be different from reality, and how big those differences tend to be.

That’s the main topic of this article.

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