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Evolutionary Aesthetics:
Visual Complexity and the Development of Human Landscape Preferences

Erich Synek
and Karl Grammer

"Aesthetic response is defined as preference or like-dislike affect in association with pleasurable feeling and neurophysiological activity elicited by visual encounter with an environment" (ULRICH, 1986)


Humans lived the most time of their evolutionary past in the savannas of tropical Afrika (the nowadays presumed site of human origins).
Therefore our aesthetic answers to landscapes should be influenced by environmental key-features we also find in the savanna.

The less experience an individual has with the environment it is actually living in, the more it should prefer savanna-like landscapes.

"Research on landscape preferences strongly indicates that savanna-like environments are consistently better liked than other environments (see reviews in Balling and Falk, 1982; Ulrich, 1983, 1986).

In the only direct test of preferences for the different biomes, BALLING & FALK (1982) hypothesized that humans have an innate preference for savanna-like environments that arises from their long evolutionary history on the savannas of East Africa.

They argued that an "innate predisposition" for the savanna should be more likely to be revealed in children than in adults because adults are likely to have had experience living in biomes other than savannas. Their study included six age groups (8, 11, 15, 18, 35, and 70 or over).

Interestingly, the desert was the last liked environment for all age groups; and two slides of the savanna during the dry season also received lower ratings than the greener savanna settings.Because none of the respondents in the Balling and Falk study had ever been in tropical savannas, the authors postulate a developmental pattern, with innately programmed responses that are later modified by experience in particular settings ( in this case, the deciduous woods of the eastern U.S.).


Visual Complexity

An alternativce explanation, to the theroetical approaches above stems from a relationship between visual complexity of landscapes and perceived scenic beauty. Several models of scenic quality are based on an assumed correlation between visual complexity and increasing aesthetic quality The development of these models was influenced by similar relationships in ecology, especially the diversity=stability relationship described by terrestrial ecologists, which proposed that increasing ecological diversity is correlated with increasing stability, and hence with environmental quality. Thus we could assume that there is a relationship between visual complexity and perceived scenic beauty.


Stimulus generation

All images were designed on a Power-Mac 9500 using the program KPT Bryce® 1.01 .
This software allows to make a snapshot from a virtual landscape.

All pictures are available in a larger version (try clicking on a small one).


From left to right: increase of tree density 
From top to bottom: increase of height differences 

Rating study

104 (52 male) children age 10.8 84 (42 male) children age 15.2 All children lived in Vienna and had experience with all presented landscape types. The rating was :Would you like to live there (1-5) ? and Would you like to spent your holidays there (1-5) ? Experience with a landscape was determined by a 50% rule. If the child had spent more then 50% of its lifetime in the mountains (with many forests) experience was coded as yes.


With digital image analysis the fractal dimension of each pictures was determined. In a second rating study (n=18) students rated the pictures complexity. Computer generated complexity correlates with perceived complexity (.81).


Children before puberty show the highest preferences for low trees and low mountains landscapes. Interestingly the basic landscapes these children have experienced around Vienna are low tree, low mountains and high tree, high mountains landscapes. Before puberty children prefer low complexity, savanna type landscapes.(see below)

This picture is reversed after puberty. Children after puberty prefer mountains and trees (see below) and the preferences shift towards high complexity mountain types of landscapes.

When we apply a mountains (3) x trees (3) x age (2) x sex (2) anvova we find effects for age and sex. Younger children rate higher and males rate higher. Two way are between age and trees age and mountains and sex and mountains. Younger children prefer less trees and mountains. Females prefer mountains.

The effects of experience with mountain type landscapes are also significant. With experience prepuberty higher have general higher ratings and after puberty trees are rated highest. Experience (50% of living time) thus seems to make more sensitive for landscapes and experience with trees and mountains leads to a preferences for these landscapes after puberty (see below)



Complexity, savanna theory and imprinting

The results show a partial replication of the Balling and Falk hypotheses. Prepuberty children prefer savanna type landscapes of low complexity. Prepuberty experience also changes landscape perception. And we we find a higher sensitivity for landscapes. The perception of optimal landscape changes with puberty according to previous experience. We hypothesize that there is either a learning process where the optimal habitat is connected to landscapes. This could be also an effect of ecological richness and variety of more complex landscapes. Annother point could be that chtere is an imprinting like process. A habitat where an individual was able to reach puberty could also be a good habitat. In adition it could be of advantage that the habitat of ones parents should be preferred, because it allowed them to raise offspring. Nevertheless there is a problem with stimulus processing which could change during puberty and lead to a preference for more complex stimuli after puberty. This question will be addressed by future cross cultural research.


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Jerome H. Barkow; Leda Cosmides; John Tooby: "The Adapted Mind", Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture

Gordon H. Orians; Judith H. Heerwagen: "Evolved Responses to Landscapes", from "The Adapted Mind", 555-579

Stephen Kaplan: "Environmental Preference in a Knowledge-Seeking, Knowledge-Using Organism", from "The Adapted Mind", 581-598

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Rachel Kaplan & Stephen Kaplan (1989): "The experience of nature: a psychological perspective"

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Leda Cosmides and John Tooby (1987): "From Evolution to Behavior: Evolutionary Psychology as the Missing Link", from "The latest on the best" (Edited by Dupr)

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Orland Brian, Weidemann Edward, Larsen Larissa, Radja Paul (April 1997): "Exploring the Relationship between Visual Complexity and Perceived Beauty", from URL

Heerwagen, J. and Orians, G. (1986): "Adaptations to windowlessness: A study of the use of visual decor in windowed and windowless offices", Environment and Behavior, 18(5),623-638.

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Orians, G. (1986): "An ecological and evolutionary approach to landscape aesthetics" Landscape meaning and values (Edited by E.C.Penning-Rowsell & D.Lowenthal), pp.3-25

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Ulrich, R. (1983): "Aesthetic and affective response to natural environment", Behavior and the natural environment (Edited by I.Altmann & J.F.Wohlwill), pp.85-125


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