Research looks at how scientists look at art

28 January 2014

Scientists and non-scientists respond to visual art in broadly similar ways, but men and women seem to value slightly different aspects of artworks. These are the conclusions of a research project commissioned by the global company Bayer and conducted by the University of Reading.

Female scientists in the study were more receptive of abstract artworks, whereas male scientists showed more of a preference for figurative art such as portraits and landscapes. The researchers surveyed 1148 people, divided into science graduates working in science, science graduates not working in science, and graduates in other disciplines.

They were questioned on their responses to 42 artworks in seven categories, such as “well-known masterpieces” and “student conceptual art”, and representing most of the major art movements of the last 150 years. They elicited answers to both quantitative and qualitative questions.

The researchers were surprised to find that the overall favourite was the same for all the groups – the work Reflections (pictured) by conceptual artist Maria Iordanou. Overall, female scientists seemed to respond more to the colour, mood and creativity of paintings and sculpture than their male counterparts, according to the report of the project, How scientists look at art.

PhD student Jenny Waller, the author of the report, said: “This is a ‘first of its kind’ research project and the results are striking. Like most people, scientists seem to rely as much on instinct and personal judgment as logic in their methods when forming opinions. Contrary to previous perceptions, our research helps to demonstrate that science and scientists are not poles apart from others in society and in fact are more like the rest of us than some might think.”

  • To join a conversation about the project, go to #Bayer150art.

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