Role of Aesthetics in Consumer Psychology

Product design is a rapidly emerging field and is a strong determinant of sales in the market. Every product consists of several dimensions: this article will focus on the attractiveness, commonly referred to as the 'aesthetics' of the product, and its role in consumer behavior. Aesthetics refers to the beauty of an object and its appreciation and plays a significant role in guiding human behavior in and outside consumer psychology.

If one has to categorize how aesthetics impact consumer psychology, one can come up with a broad distinction between consumer vs. product variables. While the consumer variables focus on individual aspects of the buyer, such as perception and preference, the product variables discuss the bought object's design, complexity, and affect-introducing properties. Recent research has also pointed to the role of socio-cultural variables in modulating the effect aesthetics play in consumer behavior.

Consumer Variables

The following are some consumer variables that modulate the role aesthetics play on the buyers −


Perception can be both holistic and feature-based. Gestalt psychologists were the significant proponents of holistic processing and believed that the whole is different from the sum of its parts. Gestalt psychologists argued that when one observes an object, one perceives configurations or patterns instead of individual elements. On the other end of the spectrum is feature-based perception, often called 'analytic' or 'local' processing. These theories assume that while observing an object, its features are first perceived, then integrated to form configurations and patterns. Biederman's Recognition-by-Components theory and Treisman's Feature Integration Theory are popular theories with this assumption. While both theories suggest that observers first recognize parts of objects before integrating them into a whole, both give the nod to the Gestalt principles as operating more on a featural level than on a global level.


An important question that can be asked is whether the consumer's preference for holistic vs. analytic processing can alter their evaluation of a product. Shifts in processing may alter the exact representation and evaluation of an object as it changes the nature of interaction along with an alteration in the number of importance weights placed on featural processing. Research has shown that a shift in processing from holistic to analytic perception often increases the liking for a product, as people can attend to the subtle details of the design. However, this shift may only sometimes hold, as one kind of processing may result in a more stable and consistent evaluation across time and space.

Product variables


Berllyne (1971) began the modern-day study of experimental aesthetics and proposed that moderately complex aesthetic stimuli are preferred over very complex or straightforward stimuli, as the arousal potential of the stimulus patterns regulates its hedonic properties. While simple stimuli are low arousing, highly complex stimuli are overly arousing. According to Berlyne's theory, the arousal potential of a stimulus derives from four sources −

  • Psychophysical properties such as intensity, pitch, and brightness

  • Ecological properties, i.e., the meaning or associations of the stimulus

  • Collative properties, i.e., aspects of the stimulus that arousals, such as complexity, novelty, and surprise

  • The arousal potential of other non-focal stimuli

Berlyne hypothesized that the collative properties are the most important and that people have an affinity for the arousal that accompanies moderate levels of novelty and complexity.

Affect-inducing properties

A product's design often prompts an affective reaction, even before cognitive appraisal occurs. This reaction may be congruent or incongruent with the subsequent controlled evaluation. However, evidence suggests that the affective reaction may better predict the buyer's evaluation of a product than the later cognitive appraisal. Data has indicated that feeling-based responses are generally faster than reason-based responses and, thus, are more natural and consistent. At the same time, the former is automatic, and the latter is more controlled and resource-taxing. The origins of these feelings can be both personal and product based. Norman (2004) has suggested that visually pleasing products can manipulate the mood by enhancing it and making people ignore small details and problems.

Socio-Cultural Variables

A product's aesthetic can be broken down into sub-components like color, size, associative effects, geometric patterns, shapes, etc., all of which have different meanings in different cultures and thus influence consumers from different social groups differently. Additionally, many societies are divided hierarchically, with different strata indulging in different lifestyles.

Ritterfeld (2002) talked about the "Social heuristic," which suggests that the social meaning of a product is more easily accessed if it is representative of the consumer's lifestyle. Several consumers also try to portray a particular lifestyle by using certain brands of products like cars, mobile phones, clothing, etc. Thus, product aesthetics and their interpretations differ in socio-cultural and economic contexts.

Implications for Preference

The fundamental question for consumer psychology is whether a shift in processing (from holistic to featural or vice versa) may change people's perceptions of an object. Surprisingly, the connection is only sometimes made. Consider the processing of facial expressions. As previously stated, much research has examined how faces are processed as wholes or collections of traits. An independent body of studies has explored the factors influencing facial beauty and discovered that individuals favor archetypal or average appearances. It was only later that an effort was made to connect these dots. H tried to determine if people make face preference judgments based on featural or holistic factors.

In contrast to most of the face recognition research, they discovered that respondents were inclined towards feature-based analysis in their judgments. Of course, the experimental task triggered more analytic processing than is generally associated with automatic face processing. This study is a good beginning point.

However, it needs to address whether the manner of processing influences preference. Prior to establishing an overall judgment, Levine, Halberstadt, and Goldstone (1996) asked participants to rate whether certain facial traits contributed to their liking or disliking of a face. Although the emphasis was on comprehending the effects of evaluating reasons on evaluation, the approach resembled a featural processing manipulation.

According to the findings, thinking about assessments leads to more significant variation in how traits are weighted. Nevertheless, neither of these investigations directly attempted to manipulate holistic and featural processing. The question of how much holistic vs. featural processing will influence appraisal remains largely unsolved. As Shepp (1989) points out, changing the primary or most natural process following stimulus exposure can significantly influence performance. A fair notion is that affective reactions may also be affected.

Reflecting On Design

Apart from changes caused by additional exposure or a different style of processing, evaluation might vary when one gains a better knowledge of the meaning of an item. Such comprehension frequently improves judgment, as artwork that first elicits an adverse visceral reaction is praised after learning its symbolic importance. This "reflective" aspect of an aesthetic reaction focuses on how knowledge and culture impact the interpretation of a product's design or what it means to own it). Examine Norman's stunning art replication example. Original artwork or a high-quality replica can be purchased. The products may be aesthetically indistinguishable, yet there is some added value in owning the original. Reflective design is learned through time and varies according to culture.

Most models of aesthetic response do not include reflective processing because they define aesthetic experience as disinterested pleasure caused by stimuli and focus primarily on the early stages of visual processing.

Although there are situations when meaning derived from a stimulus is unbiased, it is more common that the meaning includes an emotional component. The irony of several extant aesthetics theories is that they use stimulus meaning to explain effects like prototypicality bias while ignoring the emotional substance of the meaning. Whitfield (2000) addressed this issue in his updated aesthetic response model, admitting that social significance may dictate prototypicality in some situations.

Although most models do not address reflexive aesthetic appreciation, the results of automatic processing can be considered in current models. For example, reflective processing may modify an object's sensitivity to ordinary exposure or wear-out effects. Understanding the significance of an item, in general, should drive the perceiver further down the wear-out curve, resulting in a more quickly attained apex of affective reaction. Nevertheless, when a design becomes more understandable, it should be analyzed more thoroughly since it stimulates more cognitive units.

Deeper processing should result in higher liking and may postpone, if not wholly eliminate, the wear-out effect. Classical music, for example, is appreciated by those who understand it and seldom suffer from fatigue because the appreciation of the music takes comprehension and expertise on the listener's side. Moreover, a design's semantics may prolong an affective reaction beyond the effects of arousal and familiarity. Processing should increase and postpone, if not eliminate, the wear-out effect.


The role of aesthetics can be divided into two major categories: the consumer and the product variables. While the product variables serve as the stimuli, the consumer variables act as a catalyst for the buyer to make sense of the product subjectively. Additionally, socio-cultural and economic variables also significantly influence consumer behavior and whether they view the product aesthetically.

While all of these factors combined give a good outline of how a buyer perceives the aesthetic value and how it changes with different individual variables, more research is needed to understand their exact role in the decision-making process, along with an inclusion of the role played by other similar variables like emotions, memory, color scheme, etc.