The Source

Research explores key to happiness

Contact: Lisa Parrish 303.871.3172

Sensors attached to the face detect muscle movement to determine if an obhect on a computer screen prompts feelings of happiness.
Sensors attached to the face detect muscle movement to determine if an object on a computer screen prompts feelings of happiness.
Feb. 18, 2002— Why are people attracted to models who have that "girl/boy next door" quality? Have you ever found that an abstract painting grows on you with repeated viewing? Do you now hum a tune that you once considered disharmonious?

Answers to these questions can lie in the interface between perception and emotion, says Piotr Winkielman, assistant professor of psychology. His studies focus on why an easily perceived object (one whose attributes are easily processed by the mind) can create a sense of pleasure in viewers. In a research paper published in the December 2001 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Winkielman reports how manipulating the ease of perception can change emotions and attitudes towards objects.

"People like objects they can easily wrap their minds around," Winkielman explains. "Whether perceiving, thinking about or recalling something, our minds find it pleasurable to be able to easily process the information."

Words like "pleasant," "nice" and "like" are subjective and vary among people. In Winkielman’s research, he has quantified these concepts by measuring subtle changes in electrical activity of facial muscles (a technique called facial electromyography). When viewers are pleased with an object, they smile; when they are not pleased, they frown. The muscle movement is recorded and used to determine how much a person liked or disliked something.

How does this theory explain our partiality for certain faces, paintings and music? "People like faces that are averages of faces they’ve seen before because it’s easier for the mind to perceive an average," Winkielman explains. This is why societies differ in what they consider attractive — an average face there is different than what it is here.

"People like things more when the mind gets practiced at processing the information," Winkielman adds. "It feels much more pleasant than the first time due to the mental expertise acquired through repeated exposures."