Examining Complexity across Domains: Relating Subjective and Objective Measures of Affective Environmental Scenes, Paintings and Music.

Manuela Marin, Helmut Leder

Subjective complexity has been found to be related to hedonic measures of preference, pleasantness and beauty, but there is no consensus about the nature of this relationship in the visual and musical domains. Moreover, the affective content of stimuli has been largely neglected so far in the study of complexity but is crucial in many everyday contexts and in aesthetic experiences. We thus propose a cross-domain approach that acknowledges the multidimensional nature of complexity and that uses a wide range of objective complexity measures combined with subjective ratings. In four experiments, we employed pictures of affective environmental scenes, representational paintings, and Romantic solo and chamber music excerpts. Stimuli were pre-selected to vary in emotional content (pleasantness and arousal) and complexity (low versus high number of elements). For each set of stimuli, in a between-subjects design, ratings of familiarity, complexity, pleasantness and arousal were obtained for a presentation time of 25 s from 152 participants. In line with Berlyne's collative-motivation model, statistical analyses controlling for familiarity revealed a positive relationship between subjective complexity and arousal, and the highest correlations were observed for musical stimuli. Evidence for a mediating role of arousal in the complexity-pleasantness relationship was demonstrated in all experiments, but was only significant for females with regard to music. The direction and strength of the linear relationship between complexity and pleasantness depended on the stimulus type and gender. For environmental scenes, the root mean square contrast measures and measures of compressed file size correlated best with subjective complexity, whereas only edge detection based on phase congruency yielded equivalent results for representational paintings. Measures of compressed file size and event density also showed positive correlations with complexity and arousal in music, which is relevant for the discussion on which aspects of complexity are domain-specific and which are domain-general.

Department of Cognition, Emotion, and Methods in Psychology
Publication date
Peer reviewed
Austrian Fields of Science 2012
501026 Psychology of perception
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