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Paintings, Poems: You See Forest, I See Trees

People who relied on their intuitive judgments were more likely to line up with expert opinion regarding the quality of both poems and abstract art.
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Are you apprehensive about abstract art? Are you frequently vexed by free verse?

New research suggests this difficulty may reflect the way you process information—specifically, whether you zero in on the details or the big picture. It finds that, when it comes to comprehending “ambiguous, complex and abstract stimuli,” forest-focused folks are better than their tree-centric counterparts.

“When people verbalize their thoughts and analyze their reasons, they focus on reasons that are accessible in memory, plausible, and reportable,” writes a research team led by University of Amsterdam psychologist Koen Dijkstra.

In doing so, they tend to ignore elements “that are more difficult to verbalize”—which, the researchers note, are often the very qualities that make a work great. This can lead people to second-guess their instinctive reactions.

Writing in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the researchers describe a series of experiments. The first confirmed the results of a 2009 study that found gut-level choices leads to better decision-making in a variety of domains.

Sixty-eight University of Amsterdam students were asked to rate the quality of eight paintings: Four from the Museum of Modern Art’s website, and another four from Boston’s Museum of Bad Art. Half the participants “were asked to rely on their initial intuitive judgment and not to think too much,” while the others were asked “to consider separate aspects of the paintings that determined their quality” before pronouncing judgment.

The results: Those asked to go with their gut reactions were better at rating the acknowledged good paintings more highly—“were more accurate in their judgments," as the researchers put it—than were the more deliberative observers.

The second experiment featured 47 students who took a standard test to measure whether their processing style is “global” or “local.” They were presented with large letters made up of smaller ones, such as an “H” made out of tiny “Fs,” and then asked to press the correct key when one of the letters subsequently flashed on the screen.

If someone clicked quickly when an “H” appeared on the screen (in the aforementioned example), it indicated a tendency to look for patterns rather than components. These people displayed a “global processing style.”

Afterwards, all the participants evaluated the same eight paintings as participants in the first experiment. “The more global the processing style, the more accurately individuals were able to judge the paintings in terms of quality,” the researchers write.

To see if this dynamic was only applicable in the visual realm, the researchers essentially repeated the first experiment using a different group of 75 students, and eight poems rather than paintings. They utilized four “high-quality poems,” which had won awards and been published, and four that were downloaded from an amateur poet site and rated by scholars as poor.

Once again, those who used their intuitive judgment were more likely to make “accurate quality judgments” of the works. Further analysis confirmed this dynamic. The act of deliberation prompts people to adopt a detail-oriented focus; this leads them to rely on certain specific cues, which can be of dubious relevance.

The researchers note that their findings lead to something of a paradox. Criticism and scholarly analysis is, of course, based on a close reading of poems, or careful analysis of a painting. Are experts “capable of deliberating while maintaining a relatively global focus?” they ask.

Presuming the answer is yes, it’s possible they’ve stumbled onto a definition of a good critic: One who can zoom both in and out, drinking in the beauty of the forest, but also identifying which trees make the landscape particularly picturesque.