Fechner’s Aesthetics Revisited

Isn’t it beautiful?

Gustav Fechner is widely respected as a founding father of experimental psychology and psychophysics but fewer know of his interests and work in empirical aesthetics. In the later 1800s, toward the end of his career, Fechner performed experiments to empirically evaluate the beauty of rectangles, hypothesizing that the preferred shape would closely match that of the so-called ‘golden rectangle’. His findings confirmed his suspicions, but in the intervening decades there has been significant evidence pointing away from that finding. Regardless of the results of this one study, Fechner ushered in the notion of using a metric to evaluate beauty in a psychophysical way. In this paper, we recreate the experiment using more naturalistic stimuli. We evaluate subjects’ preferences against models that use various types of object complexity as metrics.

Our findings that subjects prefer either very simple or very complex objects runs contrary to the hypothesized results, but are systematic nonetheless. We conclude that there are likely to be useful measures of aesthetic preference but they are likely to be complicated by the difficulty in defining some of their constituent parts.

F. Phillips, J. F. Norman, and A. Beers, “Fechner’s Aesthetics Revisited,” Seeing and Perceiving, vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 263–271, Jul. 2010.