Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/Processing fluency theory of aesthetic pleasure

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Processing fluency theory of aesthetic pleasure:
What is the PFTAP and what are the implications for hedonic experience?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Sally and Jason both work in accounting, doing the same job but at two different firms. Sally's firm have used strategic interior design that encourages a clear workspace with minimal distractions and the use of symmetry in the building itself. Jason's firm does not limit personal belongings, therefore Jason has a lot of pictures and belongings on his desk. His firm also hangs a lot of abstract art on the walls to make up for the lack of window views available in the main office space. Jason finds that he often feels stressed at work, while Sally feels happy and calm in her workplace.

Can the visual environment influence a person's mood? And if this is the case, can this be utilised to aid the hedonic experience?

Learning Objectives
  • What is hedonism?
    • Including an explanation of some underlying theoretical research.
  • What is the Processing fluency theory of aesthetic pleasure?
    • What factors influence it?
    • What are some of its criticisms and limitations?
  • How does the processing fluency theory of aesthetic pleasure impact hedonic experience in everyday life?

Hedonism[edit | edit source]

Hedonism is the pursuit of pleasant and happy emotions. It is based on the idea that people strive for pleasurable experiences, and strive to avoid pain and punishment. This is because pleasure is seen as the base intrinsic value, due to intrinsic values producing pleasure when they're achieved, and that pain is the base intrinsic disvalue, due to intrinsic disvalues causing pain (Moen, 2016).

This chapter utilises John Mill's and Jeremy Bentham's traditional models of hedonic pleasure, and a more contemporary model by Michel Onfray, to analyse the processing fluency theory of aesthetic pleasure[explain?] (PFTAP) in this chapter.

John Mill's theory of qualitative pleasure[edit | edit source]

Mill's theory argues that different experiences of pleasure should be able to be described based on a spectrum of quality, much the same way different wines can be described as being of low or high quality (Hauskeller, 2011).

John Stuart Mill argued[when?] that pleasure can be experienced on multiple levels, with some stimuli (such as experiences or activities) eliciting greater pleasure than others depending on the quality of each stimuli (Hauskeller, 2011; Vergara, 2011). He asserted that even if two stimuli present the same level of pleasure intensity and duration, the differing experiences presented by the two experiences suggests they may differ in quality of pleasure (Hauskeller, 2011). Mill argues there are superior and inferior forms of pleasure, with those relating to intellect, feelings and imagination, and moral sentiments being of higher quality pleasures than those simply of sensation. Mill also distinguishes between complex and simple pleasures; more complex beings can more easily experience complex pleasures, and simple beings more easily experience simple pleasures, due to the complexity of the respective beings' cognitive functions (Clark, 2012; Hauskeller, 2011).

Jeremy Bentham's theory of quantitative pleasure[edit | edit source]

In contrast to Mill's theory, Jeremy Bentham proposed pleasure is derived from the quantitative data gathered from the stimulus. In Bentham's theory[when?], the intensity and the duration are the important factors in determining the level of pleasure obtained from a given visual cue. The number of these pleasurable experiences also play a role in the level of future pleasure derived from the given stimuli (Vergara, 2011).

Michel Onfray's theory of hedonism[edit | edit source]

Michel Onfray agreed with Mill in the sense of the utilitarianism of hedonism, though he argued more about the ideals of the greater good when discussing pleasure. According to Onfray's theory, one must ensure the well-being of others when attempting to do right by oneself. In other words, when one person attempts to increase their own hedonic experience, the happiness and well-being of others must not be compromised. This also works when attempting to increase the hedonic experience of the many; one must not sacrifice one's own (Bishop, 2008). Onfray believed that materialism and hedonic experience go hand in hand, placing emphasis on aesthetic pleasure being a true cause of hedonism (Bishop, 2008).

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Test yourself[edit | edit source]

1 Which theorist suggested pleasure was based on levels?


2 What is hedonism?

The daily experiences of people
The pursuit of happiness over pain
The pursuit of pain over happiness

Processing fluency theory of aesthetic pleasure[edit | edit source]

Aesthetic pleasure is defined by the pleasure derived from visual stimuli due to the visual appeal of beauty it presents. The PFTAP suggests this pleasure is dependent on the ease of fluency of the processing of information from a given stimulus (Bergeron & Lopes, 2012; Winkielman, Schwarz, Fazendeiro, & Reber, 2008). High fluency of cognitive processing, also known as high ease of processing, indicates a positive affective reaction. This reaction produces a pleasurable experience for the organism, which therefore increases enjoyment and leads to more positive evaluations of the stimulus. Due to the fluency signal affecting the level of positive or negative affect received, this theory is hedonically based (Brakus, Schmitt, & Zhang, 2014; Foster, Gerger, & Leder, 2015; Reber, Schwarz, & Winkielman, 2004; Winkielman et al., 2008). Said[grammar?] cognitive processes are made up of multiple mental events that come together to analyse the stimulus as a whole. These processes are not necessarily specific to the given stimulus, but are rather a broad set used for all stimuli that are activated in different patterns and speeds to produce the different experiences triggered by analysing different stimuli (Brakus et al., 2014; Winkielman et al., 2008).

Alcohol reduces the speed of processing, yet increases the strength of the experience of subjective fluency (Winkielman et al., 2008).

The PFTAP utilizes two main fluency types: subjective and objective fluency[grammar?]. Subjective fluency is the conscious awareness of the ease of which the stimuli is being processed; it is important to note that since this is a conscious effort, some misattributions can be made and therefore changing[grammar?] the experience. Objective fluency, on the other hand, is the unconscious side which deals with the speed, resource demands, and accuracy of the stimuli (Winkielman et al., 2008). The two types of fluency go hand in hand and can influence each other. For example, repeated presentations of a stimulus leads the objective fluency to increase, though the subjective fluency, in the form of processing ease, may remain the same (Brakus et al., 2014; Winkielman et al., 2008). The theory also includes two levels of processing fluency, perceptual and conceptual[factual?]. Perceptual fluency involves the level of ease produced when analysing low level data, usually orientated with the surface features of the stimulus. Conceptual fluency on the other hand, is used to analyse the ease of which high level operations. Such operations include those used to categorise and analyse a stimulus in relation to knowledge gathered through semantic memories, thus making the experience unique to each individual (Winkielman et al., 2008).

Figure 1. Symmetric images are processed faster due to the familiarity of their shape compared to novel shapes (Bergeron & Lopes, 2012).

Symmetry and prototypical shapes[edit | edit source]


Sally begins feeling pleasant when she approaches her office due to the symmetrical nature of the building, while Jason is bombarded with abstract art that is complex and takes time to process, therefore reducing the pleasant emotions experienced at work.

When it comes to ease of processing, symmetrical and prototypical shapes are some of the fastest to process. This is believed to be due to the simplicity of them; therefore, smaller processing steps are needed to finish the analysis (Bergeron & Lopes, 2012; Winkielman et al., 2008). Due to the high ease and speed of processing symmetrical and prototypical images or objects, it is argued that they are preferred over complex images or objects because of increased pleasure induced by the simpler forms. This means that, when seeking pleasure, people will more likely seek out these shapes or images over others (Im, Lennon, & Stoel, 2010).

Familiar stimuli[edit | edit source]

Familiar stimuli are also easier to process, and therefore feel more appealing (Foster et al., 2015; Reber et al., 2004). This means that the more you experience something, the more you're inclined to like it. This fits with the psychological theory of the mere-exposure effect, whereby liking is increased due to the familiarity gained by repeated exposure (Stafford & Grimes, 2012). This could explain why symmetric stimuli are processed faster, due to the familiar nature of half of the image.

A theory of why familiar stimuli elicits positive affect relates to the fact that a pathway has already been created for this stimuli, therefore progression is easier, as well as the idea that familiar stimuli is safe (Foster et al., 2015; Reber et al., 2004). This fits with the definition of hedonism, which suggests that people strive to avoid pain, and therefore avoid threatening situations (Foster et al., 2015). The evolutionary perspective of this suggests familiar stimuli are less likely to be dangerous and therefore increases pleasure (Reber et al., 2004).

The golden ratio[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Golden ratio spiral in a rectangle.

The golden ratio is a prototypical ratio found in nature, and has been implemented into architecture due to the positive affect it induces in people. The golden ratio is considered a divine number and expressed as a measure of divine aesthetics. It was discovered that the most aesthetically pleasing stimuli conform to this ratio. The golden ratio can be found in galaxies, the natural environment and even within the human body, and has been utilised in art and architecture for centuries (Erridge, 2012; Yalta, Ozturk, & Yetkin, 2016).[for example?]

Daniel Berlyne[edit | edit source]

Daniel Berlyne used the PFTAP to discover a spectrum of complexity that influences pleasure ratings. Berlyne discovered an inverted U-shape upon studying the PFTAP, suggesting there is an optimum level of complexity that induces pleasure. This means that neither overly simple, nor overly complex stimuli, promote pleasurable experiences (Cupchick & Gebotys, 1990; Messinger, 1998; Reber et al., 2004). This fits with Mill's theory on pleasure, with the idea that more complex beings, such as humans, require more substantial and complex stimuli to induce a pleasurable experience (Clark, 2012; Hauskeller, 2011).[for example?]

Criticisms[edit | edit source]

The PFTAP has not always been seen with such open minded acceptance. There are numerous arguments against the theory and suggestions as to shortcomings of theory[factual?]. For instance, the reliability of the theory and the meanings derived from the theory have been called into question[factual?].

For instance, in studies[factual?] where initial exposure resulted in negative affect, unreliable data has been obtained as to what this means for future exposure[explain?]. While studies resulting in positive affect upon initial exposure increase in positive affect over future exposures, this reliability has not been found where negative affect is initially found[explain?]. In some cases, future exposures result in increased liking, which aligns with the PFTAP, however other cases have found that level of liking decreased over repeated exposure which fails to support the theory (Bergeron & Lopes 2012).

Another argument against the PFTAP is that, though familiarity is increased upon repeated exposures, the actual physical characteristics of the stimuli does not change. This raises the issue of increased familiarity versus increased liking. Though the theory suggests stimuli with specific characteristics (such as moderate complexity) result in feelings of pleasure, it is difficult to understand why these feelings can increase over repeated exposure even though the stimuli remains the same; especially for stimuli that was initially disliked. This raises the question of whether positive feelings associated with familiarity are actually linked to increased pleasure and liking, or whether it is something else entirely. This query has not been fully analysed to abolish the uncertainty and create an airtight theory (Bergeron & Lopes 2012). Branching from these queries, it is also argued that the theory does not address aesthetic pleasure in it's true form. Bergeron and Lopes (2012) suggested that strong aesthetic pleasure is a consequent of more than just the ease of which recognition and categorisation of information is processed upon exposure to any given stimuli.

Figure 3. Abstract art is both complex and non prototypical in nature, though people still get pleasure from experiencing it.

A more practical example of inconsistencies with the theory is that, if pleasure comes from the ease of processing of visual stimuli, namely stimuli that is symmetric or prototypical in nature, then why do people enjoy modern and abstract art? This kind of work does not fit with prototypical or symmetrical shapes with limited chance of familiarising oneself with the context of such randomised work, suggesting time and effort would need to go into processing the stimuli. According to the PFTAP, this would make the art unpleasant and reduce liking; however, people tend to enjoy this kind of complex and ambiguous visual stimuli, suggesting that ease of processing is not necessarily the cause of pleasant emotions experienced in visual experiences (Bergeron & Lopes, 2012; Hekkert & van Wieringen, 1990; Messinger, 2010).

On a broader note, the study of hedonism has brought multiple theories on the causes and characteristics of pleasure, not all of which agree with one another. It is difficult to ascertain the 'type' of pleasure experienced through ease of processing when multiple explanations of pleasure are influenced by different things. For example, Mill suggests the quality of the stimuli represents the quality of the pleasure experiences, while Bentham argues the quantitative nature of the stimuli is the factor that influences whether pleasure is experienced or not (Vergara, 2011). The PFTAP does not address these differences in types of pleasure.

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Test yourself[edit | edit source]

1 What do Mill and Berlyne's theories of pleasure have in common?

They both believe slight complexity in stimuli is important to elicit pleasure
They both agree subjective fluency causes aesthetic pleasure
They both believe symmetry is the only factor to create aesthetic pleasure

2 According to the PFTAP, what influences whether a person will experience pleasure from looking at a stimulus?

How pretty it is
How colourful it is
The ease of which the information is processed

Practical implications for the hedonic experience[edit | edit source]

So what does this mean for the hedonic experience of everyday people? The PFTAP is utilised in almost everything that humans see, from the basic products found in most western households, to architecture and even the layout of websites. This is done to encourage positive experiences when using or viewing the given product or service, to motivate consumers into buying products and reusing services. This also means that wherever you go, you can be surrounded by visually pleasing stimuli that come together to increase the hedonic experiences of people everywhere (Im et al., 2010)

Influence on product designs[edit | edit source]

Take a look at the objects around your house. How many of them utilise the rule of symmetric and prototypical design? Chances are, the vast majority of them do. From furniture to mobile phones, simple shapes are used everywhere to emphasise familiarity and ease of processing. For example, though some couches vary in specific design, colour or size, the prototypical shape of a couch is clearly visible regardless of these varying factors. This helps to remind you of the comfort and happiness of this piece of furniture, as well as aiding in familiarity and thus ease of processing, helping to encourage you to buy a nice looking couch due to the positive affect you feel upon seeing it (Bergeron & Lopes, 2012; Im et al., 2010).

This is also the case with mobile phone trends. Back when smart phones became increasingly popular, you could find differences between brands and their designs. Though they all resembled each other in overall shape, design factors such as number and placement of buttons differed across brands such as Apple and Android companies such as Samsung. As the years progressed however, both Apple and android phone designs have come closer in line with each other, with both presenting a single home button at the bottom centre of the screen. This changes the prototype of a mobile to a single design, and increases prototypicality and familiarity among mobile phones. The designs are also highly symmetrical, thus increasing the likelihood of positive affect being experienced upon viewing and increasing likelihood of sales (Bergeron, & Lopes, 2012; Im et al., 2010; Winkielman et. al., 2008).

This is important to note due to the reliance we have on material products and the way we surround ourselves with such materialistic things. The fact that they adhere to the hedonic experience makes them an increasingly positive influence in daily life. This also fits with Onfray's theory of hedonism, whereby he places emphasis on materialism as a form of hedonism (Bishop, 2008).

Influence on advertising[edit | edit source]

In much the same way that products are designed to induce pleasure upon viewing, the advertising of these products also utilises this theory. Most advertisements utilise simplicity, with the product being the main feature of the advertisement and extra clutter being removed.

Colour familiarity can be utilised to encourage faster processing and therefore pleasurable experiences for consumers, subsequently increasing sales. Apple utilised this idea in 2005 to advertise their new iPod (see Figure 4). This shows colour familiarity with the product and emphasises simple designs where the colour link is the main feature. Though this aids in the marketing of products for organisations, it also assists the hedonic experience by surrounding the community with images that increase pleasurable experiences (Storme, Myszkowski, Davila, & Bournois, 2015).  

Influence on the digital age[edit | edit source]

It is estimated that the percent of the world's population with access to the internet has increased from less than 1% in 1995 to around 40% in 2016 (Internet Live Stats, 2016). Approximately 2.3 billion people utilise popular websites such as Facebook, Youtube and Twitter as of 2016 (SMW Staff, 2016). With the internet population growing, it is important to consider the impact of PFTAP on web designs.

These websites utilise the prototypical design to enhance the users[grammar?] experience and ensure pleasure is produced. This is done through the simplistic nature of the logos and overall design of the web pages. Squares are utilised in all three sites, with Twitter and Facebook utilising the rule of thirds, which states people enjoy looking at things that are broken into threes more than any other number (Warhol & Fields, 2012). This is used by web designers to encourage interest and ease of processing (Im et al., 2010). This is important for the hedonic experience due to the ever increasing population exposed to media online.

Online shopping[edit | edit source]

Im et al., (2010) discovered that the PFTAP was applicable to the context of online shopping. They noted it is especially important to induce pleasurable experiences in consumers through visual cues, due to the lack of any other stimuli presented. This means that the emotional experience generated from the website's design will make or break sales for the company. It was found that the use of the PFTAP did in fact produce feelings of pleasure upon viewing sites that utilise ease of processing techniques (Im et al., 2010). Ease of visual processing was also positively correlated with intent to purchase and rate of return to the site. This allows people to purposefully seek out pleasurable experiences via online retail in their pursuit of happiness over pain (Im et al., 2010). This also fits with Onfray's overlapping views of hedonism and materialism (Bishop, 2008).

Influence on architecture and interior design[edit | edit source]

Figure 5. Symmetry is used in architecture to optimise pleasant emotions of employees.

What about the building you live in? Whether a house or apartment, chances are the building itself was designed utilising either symmetrical, or prototypical, designs. The same applies to office buildings. In fact, a lot of emphasis is placed on the proper design of offices to ensure happy employees, which consequently enhances effectiveness and efficiency (Orth & Wirtz, 2014). Think of it this way, would you be happy to work in a cluttered space with either too much or insufficient lighting in a building so bland it sticks out like a sore thumb? Probably not. This is why symmetrical and simple designs are used throughout architecture and interior design.


Sally's firm utilises symmetry and simple designs to promote pleasure, while Jason's does not.

The outer design of the building itself assists in creating a pleasant and positive atmosphere for employees thus ensuring optimal chances to enhance the mood of the staff. The interior design and layout are also purposefully designed to enhance space and promote a clear atmosphere to work by reducing the complex and distracting stimuli and increasing pleasure inducing stimuli, such as plants, thus allowing the work environment to enhance the hedonic experience (Orth & Wirtz, 2014).

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Test yourself[edit | edit source]

1 How does Onfray's idea of hedonism relate to product design?

He believes all product designs should follow the framework of the processing fluency theory of aesthetic pleasure
He believes materialism and hedonism go hand in hand
He believes everyone should have a mobile phone

2 How does the processing fluency theory of aesthetic pleasure influence the hedonic experience?

It influences the design aspect of products, allowing people to surround themselves with pleasure inducing stimuli
It allows people to be motivated when they look at their phone
It gives people many things to look at

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The hedonic experience is defined differently by different theorists, however they all agree that we instrinsically search for pleasure over pain (Moen, 2016). The PFTAP argues that in order to gain pleasurable emotions from visual stimuli, the information must be easy and fast to process. By utilising this theory, people are able to surround themselves with pleasure inducing stimuli that meet the innate desire to seek pleasurable emotions (Bergeron & Lopes, 2012). Products, advertisements and websites utilise this theory in their design, while architecture is based around the idea of creating stimuli that is easy to process and is therefore aesthetically pleasing. This is a positive for hedonic experience due to the opportunities set forward to increase positive emotions.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Bergeron, V., & Lopes, D. M. (2012). Aesthetic theory and aesthetic science. In A. P. Shimamura & S. E. Palmer, Aesthetic science: Connecting minds, brains, and experience (pp. 196-203). New York: Oxford

Bishop, P. (2008). 'Elementary aesthetics', hedonist ethics: The philosophical foundations of Feuerbach's late works. History of European Ideas, 34(3), 298-309. doi: 10.1016/j.histeuroideas.2008.01.003

Brakus, J. J., Schmitt, B. H., & Zhang, S. (2014). Experiential product attributes and preferences for new products: The role of processing fluency theory. Journal of Business Research, 67(11), 2291-2298. doi: 10.1016/j.jbusres.2014.06.017

Clark, S. (2012). Pleasure as self-discovery. Ratio, 25(3), 260-276. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9329.2012.00541.x

Cupchick, G. C., & Gebotys, R. J. (1990). Interest and pleasure as dimensions of aesthetic response. Empirical Studies of the Arts, 8(1), 1-14. doi: 10.2190/L789-TPPY-BD2Q-T7TW

Erridge, P. (2012). The golden ratio. British Dental Journal, 213(10),489. doi: 10.1038/sj.bdj.2012.1044

Foster, M., Gerger, G., & Leder, H. (2015). Everything's relative? Relative differences in processing fluency and the effects on liking. Plos One, 10(8), 1-14. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0135944

Hauskeller, M. (2011). No philosophy for swine: John Stuart Mill on the quality of pleasures. Utilitas, 23(4), 428-446. doi: 10.1017/S0953820811000264

Hekkert, P., & von Wieringen, P. C. W. (1990). Complexity, prototypicality as determinants of the appraisal of Cubist paintings. British Journal of Psychology, 81(4), 483495. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8295.1990.tb02374.x

Im, H., Lennon, S. J., & Stoel, L. (2010). The perceptual fluency effect on pleasurable online shopping experience. Journal of Research in Interactive Marketing, 4(4), 280-295. doi: 10.1108/17505931011092808

Internet Live Stats. (2016). Internet Users. Retrieved from Internet Live Stats website:

Messinger, S. M. (1998). Pleasure and complexity. The Journal of Psychology, 132(1), 558-560. doi: 10.1080/00223989809599288

Moen, M. (2016). An argument for hedonism. The Journal of Value Inquiry, 50(2), 267-281. doi: 10.1007/s10790-015-9506-9

Orth, U. R. & Wirtz, J. (2014). Consumer processing of interior service environments: The interplay among visual complexity, processing fluency, and attractiveness. Journal of Service Research, 17(3), 296-309. doi: 10.1177/1094670514529606

Reber, R., Schwarz, N., & Winkielman, P. (2004) Processing fluency and aesthetic pleasure: Is beauty in the perceiver's processing experience? Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8(4), 364-382. doi: 10.1207/s15327957pspr0804_3

SMW Staff. (2016). Study: Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are top 3 social media channels for U.S. companies. Retrieved from Social Media Week website:

Stafford, T., & Grimes, A. (2012). Memory enhances the mere exposure effect. Psychology and Marketing, 29(12), 995-1003. doi: 10.1002/mar.20581

Storme, M., Myszkowski, N., Davila, A., & Bournois, F. (2015). How subjective processing fluency theory predicts attitudes toward visual advertisements and purchase intention. The Journal of Consumer Marketing, 32(6), 432-440. doi: 10.1108/JCM-10-2014-1187

Vergara, F. (2011). Bentham and Mill on the 'quality' of pleasures. Revue d’études benthamiennes, 9(1), 15-85. doi: 10.4000/etudes-benthamiennes.422

Warhol, T., & Fields, K. R. (2012). Organising blogs in an ESL/EFL class using the rule of thirds. TESOL Journal, 3(4), 735-744. doi: 10.1002/tesj.41

Winkielman, P., Schwarz, N., Fazendeiro, T. A., & Reber, R. (2008). The hedonic marking of processing fluency: Implications for evaluative judgement. In J. Musch & K. C. Klauer, The psychology of evaluation: Affective processes in cognition and emotion (pp. 65-262). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Yalta, K., Ozturk, S., & Yetkin, E. (2016). Golden ratio and the heart: A review of divine aesthetics. International Journal of Cardiology, 214(1), 107-112. doi: 10.1016/j.ijcard.2016.03.166

External links[edit | edit source]