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Visual attention bias for self-made artworks

Larissa Mendoza Straffon and colleagues investigated visual attentional biases toward self-made artworks, which tend to be favoured, remembered, valued, and ranked above and beyond objects that are not related to the self.

Larissa Mendoza Straffon, Georgina Agnew, Chenika Desch-Bailey, Evy van Berlo, Gosia Goclowska, & Mariska Kret
18 May 2022
Read the paper on PsycNet: Visual attention bias for self-made artworks

Visual attention bias for self-made artworks

Self-relevant information, such as one’s own name, face, and handwriting, have been shown to catch people’s attention above other-related stimuli. Even more, any stimuli associated with the self, either by proximity or familiarity, seems to be prioritized in visual attention tasks. Previous research has also highlighted that, objects perceived as ‘mine’ not only grab more attention but also are remembered better and preferred more than other objects, and that people assign greater value and positive affect to self-made objects.

The role of self-relevance in aesthetic preference has been hinted at in many empirical studies which show, for example, that people prefer art that is familiar or art that is personally meaningful. However, the relationship between self-relevance and art had not yet been tested directly. A team of researchers from the University of Bath, in the UK, and Leiden University set out to test whether self-relevance in fact affects attention and preference for visual artworks.

Unlike most studies of artistic preferences, instead of using existing artworks as stimulus material, the researchers asked participants to create their own abstract paintings. Abstract art was chosen because recognizable motifs, such as persons, animals, landscapes or everyday objects could unwarily produce associations that interfered with the results.

In addition to making art, the participants observed the creation of artworks by others, copied other people’s artworks, and were asked to rate their own as well as others’ paintings. All the art was then incorporated into a dot-probe task pairing self-made and other-made art to measure and compare the participants’ mean reaction times across stimuli.

The research team expected to find increased visual attention (shorter reaction times) and preference (higher ratings) for artworks associated with the self. Their results confirmed that artworks which were self-made, and consequently self-relevant, got preferential visual attention and were judged more favourably than other-made, non-self-relevant artworks.

It has been suggested before that, aesthetic preferences for artworks and design objects might have been co-opted from preferences for evolutionary-relevant stimuli such as faces and food. Self-relevance offers an alternative interpretation. If artworks are somehow perceived as extensions of the self, as these results indicate, it is possible that they play a role in human social cognition and have been evolutionary relevant in themselves. Evidence that great apes and young children also prefer objects based on feelings of ownership and effort investment points to the deep evolutionary roots of these effects and suggests that early humans might have already held self-made artefacts in high esteem.

In the social life of humans, aesthetic objects are often used as symbols of identity and status, and are frequently traded, gifted, inherited, and exchanged. Moreover, making aesthetic objects can show off one’s skills, while displaying them informs about one’s social history and affiliations. The study suggests that artworks acquire attentional preference and affective value precisely because they become invested with the self of their makers. Thus, artworks seem to be a prime example of the extended self.


Straffon, L. M., Agnew, G., Desch-Bailey, C., van Berlo, E., Goclowska, G., & Kret, M. (2022, May 12). Visual Attention Bias for Self-Made Artworks. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Advance online publication.

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