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J Vis. 2010 Feb 22;10(2):18.1-14. doi: 10.1167/10.2.18.

Beauty and the beholder: highly individual taste for abstract, but not real-world images.

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Center for Neural Science, New York University, New York, NY, USA.


How individual are visual preferences? For real-world scenes, there is high agreement in observer's preference ratings. This could be driven by visual attributes of the images but also by non-visual associations, since those are common to most individuals. To investigate this, we developed a set of novel abstract, visually diverse images. At the individual observer level both abstract and real-world images yielded robust and consistent visual preferences, and yet abstract images yielded much lower across observer agreement in preferences than did real-world images. This suggests that visual preferences are typically driven by the semantic content of stimuli, and that shared semantic interpretations then lead to shared preferences. Further experiments showed that highly individual preferences can nevertheless emerge also for real-world scenes, in contexts which de-emphasize their semantic associations.

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