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Complexity bias

Updated: Mar 26

Each psychothermal quality and its opposite represent a perceptual dimension, near the center of which we often find things familiar, interesting and beautiful. Our dual use of the word "like" for both appreciation and similarity is a reflection of this. A similarity between ourselves and what we call beautiful is also captured in the idea that life imitates art. Along the rainbow, red is exciting and blue is calming while green, near the perceptual center, is associated with familiarity, beauty and envy. Combinations of qualities from the more and less exciting ends of perceptual dimensions are also treated as familiar, again because we recognize them as being more like ourselves. In terms of color, brighter combinations such as those of white and red are exciting, those of black and blue are less so, and we find combinations of blue and red relatively familiar and treat them with more respect. High and low-pitched sounds tend to disturb us while moderate and complex mixtures of moderately higher and lower sounds are comfortable and attractive. We find visual disorder, including fluidity, more uncomfortable than visual order such as straightness and flatness, but also go out of our way to embellish such visual simplicity with decorative imperfections. We find inaction uninteresting, rapid movement alarming, intermediate movements graceful, and intricate mixtures of the two have evolved for their attractiveness, independently, throughout the animal kingdom and human culture. Along the dimension of fluidity and solidness we find a pattern as well in which people appreciate representatives of a constituency which is intermediate between solid and fluid such as breasts, clay, lava lamps, gum, food and less thorough mixtures of solid and fluid like beaches, eggs, landscapes and decorative water fountains. Aesthetic experiences are often complex perceptual sequences with an essence of moderation in that the relatively exciting elements are offset, or compensated for, by less exciting ones in an intricate way. Music illustrates this point as an intricate mixture of higher and lower pitched sounds, assuming the former to be relatively exciting. Dance, an intricate mixture of motion and stillness, up and downwardness and out an inwardness, similarly illustrates an interest in moderation, assuming motion, upwardness and outwardness to be more exciting than their opposites. Games have a similar aesthetic structure, with periods of up and down, in and out, and stasis and conclusion punctuated by action and uncertainty. Aesthetic visual stimuli tend to combine brighter, or more arousing colors with darker ones, and mixtures of more exciting lines and flow with less exciting, relatively contained, rectilinear or round objects, as in flags and flowers. Dewitt H. Parker (1920) describes a theme of moderation running through art in general: “There is as genuine a unity between contrasting colors and musical themes as there is between colors closely allied in hue or themes simply transposed in key. Contrasting elements are always the extremes of some series, and are unified, despite the contrast, because they supplement each other. Things merely different, no matter how different, cannot contrast, for there must be some underlying whole, to which both belong, in which they are unified. In order that this unity may be felt, it is often necessary to avoid absolute extremes, or at least to mediate between them.”


Complexity bias is manifest in common idioms and expressions in mixtures of perceivable opposites such as "the short end of the stick," which refers to length and its opposite shortness, or "what goes up must come down," "know all the ins and outs of," "flashing hot and cold." That we tend to repeat these is probably more a result of the complexity that comes from putting opposites together than due to the specific literal or figurative meanings.


List 1: Exciting qualities in simple sequences


Works cited


Parker, Dewitt Henry. "The Principles of Aesthetics, 1920." Silver, Burdett and Company.

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