A few months back I was challenged by a friend to explain why I think The Wire is the best TV series ever. Pointing to its critical acclaim wouldn’t do – I needed to articulate my own reasons. I soon realised that translating my appreciation into words wasn’t a straightforward task. What’s more, a new study suggests that any reasons I came up with could well have fed back and influenced my subsequent experience of the programme.
The new research was conducted in relation to paintings, where the challenge of verbalising one’s preferences is even trickier than for a TV show. Ayumi Yamada asked half of 129 students to either verbalise their reasons for liking two paintings – one abstract, one representational (Piet Mondrian’s Woods near Oele, shown right, and his New York City, respectively) – or to verbalise their reasons for not liking the paintings. The remaining participants acted as controls and just viewed the paintings without saying anything. Afterwards, all the participants had to say which was their favoured painting.
The results showed that verbalising their responses to the paintings appeared to distort the participants’ subsequent preferences. Those participants in the verbalisation condition who’d been challenged to say why they liked the paintings were subsequently biased towards choosing the representational painting as their favourite. By contrast, participants in the verbalisation condition who’d been challenged to articulate their reasons for disliking the paintings were subsequently biased towards choosing the abstract painting as their favourite.
What was going on? Yamada thinks that the apparent ease with which we can verbalise our feelings affects our later judgements. Because participants found it easier to talk about why they liked the representational painting compared with the abstract one, this biased them in favour of the representational painting. Similarly, participants who had to talk about their dislike for the art, found this easier for the representational painting, which subsequently biased them against it.
The finding is consistent with past research showing that attempting to verbalise our feelings can distort our later choices. For example, a prior study showed that participants who attempted to explain their preferences for different jams subsequently showed less agreement with expert ratings than did control participants.
“When lacking access to the exact determinants of their preferences, people with abundant vocabulary [such as when judging representational art] are more likely to generate plausible, yet specious, reasons and still be prevented from appreciating art to its fullest,” Yamada said.
Yamada, A. (2009). Appreciating art verbally: Verbalization can make a work of art be both undeservedly loved and unjustly maligned. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (5), 1140-1143 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.06.016