Split Second Stats #6: Subconscious Effects

In the previous post I closed by noting that depending on what participants were asked to do, visual complexity could affect their ratings. Indeed, we found that the effect of complexity changed depending on the task completed before providing a rating. Complexity affected almost every section of the experiment in some way or another, but some of those effects were more interesting than others. In particular, we found a very interesting set of interactions between the complexity of the frame of a work, the task participants were asked to complete, and rating.

In the time-limited, Split Second task, we found various attributes of the frame of a painting had strong effects on how that painting was rated. The strongest effect was caused by the frame size, where bigger frames resulted in lower ratings. However, we also found that the surface complexity of the frame had a positive effect on ratings (cor = 0.19, p = 0.014). This effect was smaller, but definitely significant.

Krishna Carried Across the River is a work with very high frame complexity.

A major goal of this experiment was coming up with some preliminary answers to the question of what, exactly, is factored into a split-second judgment. When we make judgments in time-limited contexts, we’re not able to make a thorough survey of the thing we’re judging. Instead we produce a judgment based on a number of subconscious processes which may be affected by more than the thing itself. In this particular case, we were interested in knowing whether the complexity of the frame was affecting conscious, systematic judgments, or was operating on a subconscious level.

To answer this question, we looked at how the complexity of the frame affected ratings in all of the other tasks. In the time-unlimited control task, where participants were given as much time as they liked to rate a work without being asked to do anything else, the frame complexity effect disappeared completely. That is, when people were allowed to take a thorough look at a work, the complexity of its frame did not affect their judgment. This was also true for all of the engagement tasks, which makes sense because those tasks require participants to take a systematic approach to evaluating each work’s surface.

In the time-unlimited Think tasks, where participants read information about the work, the frame complexity effect returned. That is, when participants paid attention to information about the painting, their judgment was again affected by the complexity of the frame. This suggests that attention paid to curatorial labels was also attention shifted from the work itself, and that this shift allowed certain aspects of the work to have a subconscious effect which would not occur in other circumstances. This effect was strongest when the full curatorial label was added (cor = 0.4, p = 0.01).

This finding is important from an exhibition design perspective. Curatorial interventions in the gallery space are always engaged in a kind of struggle with the art itself for spectator attention. Depending on how the attention of the spectator is focused, certain properties of artworks may be activated or suppressed. Some of these properties, such as the complexity of the frame, may only be activated when viewer attention is diverted or split in some way. A key aspect of the role of the curator is awareness of and sensitivity to the complex interdependencies between in-gallery interventions and various properties of the works. This experiment suggests an analysis of these interdependencies in terms of attention management: for any given curatorial intervention, how is attention diverted or split, and how does that activate or suppress properties of the work itself?