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What Makes Beauty Subjective?

2012 August 12
by Eric Horowitz

Subjective experiences are known to influence our perception of beauty, but scientists still don’t have a great handle on what it is about these subjective experiences that influences our perceptions. Netta Weinstein of the University of Essex decided to examine the problem through the lens of self-determination theory (SDT), one of the chief theories of human motivation.The gist of SDT is that people are motivated to fulfill the need for three things: Competence (i.e. being able influence your environment in desired ways), relatedness (feeling connected to others), and  autonomy (perceiving that your are choosing to do what you want to do.) Weinstein and her team proposed and found that the fulfillment of these three needs can influence perceptions of beauty.

Four studies were conducted to address this question using self-determination theory (Ryan and Deci in Psychol Inq 11:319–338, 2000) as a guiding framework. Studies 1 and 2 indicated that satisfaction of the needs for competence, relatedness, and autonomy in one’s childhood home was linked to perceptions of beauty directly and indirectly through emotions of the past (recollections of happiness) and present (nostalgia). Two additional studies focused on present-day spaces. In Study 3, we found that need satisfaction impacted perceptions of the university campus as beautiful. In a final study, we manipulated needs in the lab to identify a causal model of aesthetic perceptions.

Overall, the subjectivity of beauty being driven by crucial needs is a good thing for humanity. Beauty in its most meaningless superficial form (e.g. a model in a magazine ad) is an inefficient tool for increasing satisfaction. When you approach a conventionally beautiful woman at a bar you feel satisfied because you’ve been taught by society that she is beautiful and therefore you should be satisfied. But there is no deeper need that’s being fulfilled. On the other hand, if you’re drawn to a woman at a bar who has previously demonstrated the ability to fulfill deep emotional needs, you’ll end up better off than if you chase the woman who looks like she’s from a magazine add. It’s easier to find happiness when you’re attracted to things that have the intrinsic quality of making you satisfied.

The bad news is that at the margin, modern society is helping to kill this piece of beauty. When people have conventions of beauty so thoroughly solidified through photos, television, and other media involving no real human interaction, it likely strengthens our objective notions of beauty and weakens the influence of subjective factors. If there’s a person who satisfied your SDT needs but isn’t conventionally beautiful, you’ll still be more attracted to them than if they didn’t satisfy those needs, but you probably won’t be as attracted as you would have been if you lived 300 years ago and didn’t have your objective notion of beauty hardened by beer commercials. The result is that people are less likely to end up with people/things that are subjectively beautiful and more likely to end up with objectively beautiful things that don’t do as good a job satisfying deeper needs.
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Weinstein, N., Legate, N., & Przybylski, A.K. (2012). Beauty is in the eye of the psychologically fulfilled: How need satisfying experiences shape aesthetic perceptions of spaces Motivation and Emotion DOI: 10.1007/s11031-012-9312-7

One Response leave one →
  1. José permalink
    September 16, 2013

    When you approach the conventionally beautiful woman at a bar isn’t it satisfactory that you would have sex with her? And sex would lead to kids and isn’t perpetuation of species the goal of our sexual needs? Isn’t that the real reason why you make the approach anyway?

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