Image Ambiguity and Fluency

Martina Jakesch, Helmut Leder, Michael Forster

Ambiguity is often associated with negative affective responses, and enjoying ambiguity seems restricted to only a few situations, such as experiencing art. Nevertheless, theories of judgment formation, especially the “processing fluency account”, suggest that easy-to-process (non-ambiguous) stimuli are processed faster and are therefore preferred to (ambiguous) stimuli, which are hard to process. In a series of six experiments, we investigated these contrasting approaches by manipulating fluency (presentation duration: 10ms, 50ms, 100ms, 500ms, 1000ms) and testing effects of ambiguity (ambiguous versus non-ambiguous pictures of paintings) on classification performance (Part A; speed and accuracy) and aesthetic appreciation (Part B; liking and interest). As indicated by signal detection analyses, classification accuracy increased with presentation duration (Exp. 1a), but we found no effects of ambiguity on classification speed (Exp. 1b). Fifty percent of the participants were able to successfully classify ambiguous content at a presentation duration of 100 ms, and at 500ms even 75% performed above chance level. Ambiguous artworks were found more interesting (in conditions 50ms to 1000ms) and were referred over non-ambiguous stimuli at 500ms and 1000ms (Exp. 2a - 2c, 3). Importantly, ambiguous images were nonetheless rated significantly harder
to process as non-ambiguous images. These results suggest that ambiguity is an essential ingredient in art appreciation even though or maybe because it is harder to process.

Department of Cognition, Emotion, and Methods in Psychology
Publication date
Peer reviewed
Austrian Fields of Science 2012
501006 Experimental psychology, 501026 Psychology of perception, 501011 Cognitive psychology, 501001 General psychology
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