The Surprising Power of Symmetry - Pacific Standard

The Surprising Power of Symmetry

New research finds people who read an article presented in a symmetrical format find it both more appealing and more relevant.
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Visual symmetry increases aesthetic appeal. (Photo: SteafPong88/Shutterstock)

Visual symmetry increases aesthetic appeal. (Photo: SteafPong88/Shutterstock)

Are you enjoying this article? Do you find it relevant to your life? I’d like to take all the credit for that, but new research suggests your positive reaction may simply reflect its physical presentation.

It finds articles with a simple, symmetrical layout—something close to what we routinely use at PSmag.com—are more appealing to readers, and seem more personally significant. What’s more, readers apparently pay closer attention to the arguments contained in such pieces.

Reported differences in reading difficulty did not account for the findings, leading psychologists Brianna Middlewood and Karen Gasper of the Pennsylvania State University to conclude the key factor is “the appeal of symmetry.”

“When it comes to making people care about information, visual appeal matters,” the researchers write in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Gasper and Middlewood present evidence for their thesis in the form of three experiments. In one of them, 67 people recruited online read a short article describing the pros and cons of year-round schooling.

"When it comes to making people care about information, visual appeal matters."

For half of the participants, two boxes containing the text were presented in a simple, side-by-side layout. For the others, each box was tilted either 30 degrees or 45 degrees.

After reading them, participants responded to a series of statements, including “How difficult was this article to read?” and “This topic matters to me.” They were further asked whether they wanted more information on the subject, and whether they’d be interested in signing a petition supporting one side or the other.

The results: Participants judged the more symmetrical layouts as more appealing, and this quality stimulated a sense that the subject matter was relevant to them. This in turn led to “information engagement—in particular, the desire to obtain more information and to take action to help the cause,” the researchers write.

A second experiment, featuring 146 adults recruited online, used a simpler pair of layouts. Half read an article presented in two adjacent boxes, while the others read the same text presented in boxes located on the top left and bottom right corners of the page.

This time, the article laid out the case that colleges should require comprehensive examinations for graduation. But there were two different versions of the piece.

Half of the participants read a text featuring strong, well-thought-out arguments, such as “graduate and professional schools show a preference for undergraduates who have passed a comprehensive exam.” The others read a version featuring weak arguments, such as pointing out that instituting such an exam “would allow the university to be at the forefront of a national trend.”

All then rated the piece in terms of its appeal, relevance, and difficulty to read. They also reported the extent to which they agreed with the position being advocated.

Once again, “the symmetrical layout was rated as more appealing than the asymmetrical layout,” and those who found the article appealing also rated it higher in terms of personal relevance.

Moreover, those who considered the piece highly relevant apparently paid closer attention than the others. They agreed more with the proposal if they read the strong rather than the weak arguments. For those who considered it not particularly relevant, the strength of the argument had no effect on their level of agreement.

So it appears that regarding a piece of writing as personally relevant makes a big difference, in terms of reading it critically, as well as its ability to potentially spur action. But why did the layout—a seemingly irrelevant factor—prompt people to feel it was of more or less significance to them?

The researchers offer some possible explanations. “Visual symmetry increases aesthetic appeal,” they note, likely “because it increases the ease with which information is processed.”

This easy understanding triggers a sense of fluency, in that reading the text is an enjoyable experience. Since, in the researchers’ words, “people want to identify with things they like,” it makes sense that they’d find a topic that aroused warm feelings to be particularly relevant.

So if you’re designing anything from a simple flyer to a complex website, you might want to keep in mind the value of simplicity.

“Asymmetrical designs may grab people’s attention,” Gasper and Middlewood write. But if your goal is to get people intrigued, inspired, or involved, proportionality is your pal.

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