29 January 2018

Investigating objects, meanings and associations: A comparison between artists and non-artists - a summary

This research study was my final project for the Msc psychology, University of Hertfordshire, 2017

I asked artists and non-artists to participate in a study to find out if they understood objects differently, if that was measurable, and what any differences might mean in terms of art. The most significant finding was that artists tend to refer to their own memories, or think up a story, when they are deciding what an ambiguous object is, whereas non-artists don’t. This means that when artists look at or present those ambiguous objects which are artworks, they are already thinking in different ways to non-artists. If artists and curators want viewers to see and understand their work fully, they could provide titles, narratives and ways that viewers can personally relate to art.

Artists are a relatively under-researched demographic in psychology. Artist training usually includes the art crit - critique sessions where student artists debate the intrinsic and implied properties of objects and concepts, and artists typically continue similar critique throughout professional practice, suggesting that as individuals, artists may have an atypical approach to concept formation which could be compared to non-artists. A group of 30 adult professional artists was compared to a group of 30 adult non-artists in a series of tasks and trials. Everyone who participated completed the same tasks in the same order, under similar conditions and with the same instructions, so that results could be compared.


My supervisor, Sue Anthony, remembers our first meeting as me plonking down the paper/brick/box object on the table and stating that artists would immediately be able to tell me all sorts of implied narratives about it. I remember that meeting rather differently, but Sue and I ended up spending many hours over the next few months thrashing out how we know what things are when we look at them, and how anything means more than its constituent parts.

When I first started studying psychology, I was rather excited about the bit where we would get around to creativity, what it is and what its mechanisms are thought to be. I’ve always loved that part of art practice - analysis of the self and the impulse to make things, and how we think we are imbuing objects and images with meanings and implications. Well, I was rather disappointed that my Msc didn’t really cover that until I could devise my final project.

I’d never been very convinced by the measures that attempt to quantify creativity by how many uses for a thing, like a brick or some wire, a person can think up: a doorstop, a pair of earrings, a weapon, and so on. Yes, it’s some sort of test of some sort of creativity, but I had anecdotal and instinctive reasons to think that conversely, artists may tend to limit themselves in their thinking, away from squandering thought in endless variety, to choosing a few and then thinking more deeply about them. Artists tend to specialise, to have recurring themes and imagery, to reiterate the same train of thought in new ways, rather than have a scattergun approach. Perhaps an artist could think up more uses for the brick - it may or may not tell us something. I am more interested in the depth of creativity rather than its width.

Sue Anthony is a specialist in the wonderful mechanisms by which we know what a thing is when we look at it, even though we may never have seen that particular object before. Once it’s broken down, it’s a wonderfully complex process, applicable to myriad applications in science -  psychology, cognition, semantics, and in art - curation, fine art practice and education.

Background - categories
Concept formation and how we know what things are even if we have not seen them before. Categorisation is the process by which we recognise and understand objects, and how concepts are grouped together in our understanding. A concept is a general term used to group together objects, events or ideas. Concepts typically have a set of defining ideas, and probabilistic concepts define the concept in terms of features likely to be found, for example, the concept of tree might include such features as having branches and green leaves, but not every tree has all these features. When we see a novel object, we make predictions about it through features and similarities it shares with already familiar concepts and categories, and so we know it by grouping it together with similar types of things. This study investigated the relationship between concepts, objects and categories, and how people form a concept about objects so that they decide which category it belongs in.

Framework of psychology tests
To make my study measurable in the context of other psychology research, I adapted and devised new formations of existing scientific experiments and more real-life handling of objects.

Quantitative and qualitative research
Quantitative - measurements and statistics. Qualitative - understanding reasons and motivations.
There is a paradox inherent in measuring human behaviour - quantitative research deals in statistical analysis - the numbers. Qualitative research can be just as rigorous and precise, but deals in the more subjective area of decoding meaning. One without the other is meaningless or mere speculation, and so methodology that combines both methods is preferable to me, especially in the realms of art research.

Group size, demographic, artist criteria
Numbers of participants in which to get a significant result, statistical norms.                     
Studying psychology gave me an appreciation of statistical analysis. I didn’t exactly take to statistics like a duck to water, but I could follow the logic of scientific research methods. Two groups of thirty participants is a large enough group for any comparative differences to be statistically significant and not by chance. I matched the groups of participants as evenly as possible for age, gender and educational background. Artists were defined by criteria borrowed from AN The Artists Information Company, and AUE Artists Union England - both professional artists organisations which give several criteria for memberships such as having a visual arts degree, exhibiting publicly and participating in residencies. Artists, then, were defined not by having or commenting upon any artistic tendency or appreciation, but by measurable professional training and experience of the art crit.

The study included a measure of individual tolerance for ambiguity (McLain 1993), as ambiguity is a key component in looking at artworks, and decoding the meaning of objects. The study also went further in investigating ambiguity, by presenting deliberately ambiguous choices in the object triad tasks, and by measuring how difficult it was to make those choices. There was an expectation that artists and non-artists would respond differently, with artists more accustomed to contemplating ambiguous properties through their art crit practice.
Ambiguity is clearly an essential component in art, layered in different ways by various artists. An object in a frame or on a plinth implies that is it art and that it represents something. Even the most photo-realist art is always a representation of a way of seeing - we do not even see our surroundings as clearly as photography. We really see in a sequence of moments, some of which are blurred of focussed, or implied, and all subject to our own understanding. The more abstract art becomes, the less it looks like categories of things we already know. What does red mean? What does a shadow say? Or a line, or a splash?

Triad tests - established scientific method   
In a triad of one key and two choices, the choice reveals tendencies in how objects and concepts are understood. I used triads from Linn and Murphy, 2001. For example, in the triad Sapphire, Ring, Emerald - for the key Sapphire, Ring is the thematic choice as it is linked to Sapphire only by a narrative association, and Emerald is the taxonomic choice as it shares some gemstone properties with Sapphire. These triads are usually given on paper but I decided to make them into a cards task to prime my participants towards handling objects, and to familiarise them with the format of choosing one to match the key, so they would know what to do with the later ambiguous choices. Participants gave their choice without being asked for their reasons in this task, but were asked to explain their choices in the later object triads.

Thematic - themes, narrative, meanings. Taxonomic - properties
It’s thought that participants’ choices reveal their tendency to think about objects in certain ways - thematically - creating categories by narrative, or taxonomically - creating categories by properties. In the cards triad task, a score of 14 or more choices out of 20 indicates that is not by chance.

Thematic (score 14 or more): all participants 24(40%), artists 9(30%), non-artists 15(50%)
Taxonomic (score 14 or more): all participants 2(3%), artists 2(7%), non-artists 0(0%)
No tendency (score less than 14): all participants 34(40%), artists 19(63%), non-artists 15(50%)
The art crit is central to art training, where art is discussed and debated thematically and taxonomically. In other words, artists go through group critiques, explaining to others what they are doing and what they intend it to mean, while fellow students and tutors challenge and suggest alternatives. It can be harsh criticism and yet enlightening. It’s part of the training allowing artists to deepen understanding of their own work, and to show it without feeling personally exposed.

Object triad: Cow Milk Lemonade
The first object triad choice was Cow Milk Lemonade, a Linn and Murphy triad presented in the study as objects which were given to the participants to handle. The key is Milk, and the choice Milk and Cow indicated a thematic choice, where the link is through a narrative, whereas Milk and Lemonade is taxonomic, as the two share properties - liquid, drinks, glass, bottles. There are no shared properties between the small plastic cow, and a miniature bottle (seemingly) of milk.

Results: Cow Milk Lemonade

Milk Cow: all participants 44(73%), artists 24(80%), non-artists 20(66%)  
Artist - Eh, colour. Form. Milk. Eh, milk bottles, dairy, herds. This, this one's all citric and would make milk go funny, but they're both in bottles and you can drink, so this one, the cow, they just look right together. They're both really pleasing, they’ve both got sort of white, solid, thing. Monotone. Em, they're both charming things I would put in my studio.
Non-artist - It's the bottle of milk, so it's the milk associated with the cow rather than the other bottle. So it's what's inside the bottle rather than, the bottle, the fact of the bottle itself. Also, lemon juice would tend to curdle milk, so I would tend to think that you would not have these things together unless you wanted something else.

Milk Lemonade: all participants 16(27%), artists 6(20%), non-artists 10(33%)   
Artist - Because I like the arrangement, of the bottle with the lemon, in the rectangle. I think it's very pleasing.
Non-artist - I think, I think maybe if it was different drinks I would categorise them together, but I'm thinking it's obviously cow comes from milk but I think it's connotations in my head of the milk, and lemonade would be in different places in a shop.

Objects triad: Brick Paper Box
The second object triad was Brick Paper Box, and the key was Box. If you have participated in the study, you will already know that the Box was light and made of paper, shaped like a small brick and printed with small-scale brick walls. The Brick was not a full brick, but clearly part of one, and Paper, was a small lined notebook without a cover. The thematic and taxonomic choices, then, were not so clear - Box and Paper shared properties of paper, and the lines referred to lines of the brick images, however, Box inferred links to bricks and walls, creating narrative links to Brick. These and other complex overlapping properties made this triad choice deliberately ambiguous, and so the choice and reasons for choosing revealed much more about how participants think about and categorise objects.

Results: Box Paper Brick

Box Brick: all participants 44(70%), artists 18(60%), non-artists 24(80%)      
Artist - This one. The brick, Because I like the juxtaposition of the forms. They're very different. I like the, this, brick, I don't know, what is brick made out of? (Clay, I think) It's rather lovely isn't it. Yeah, the clay, with the paper. I like it. So the contrast between the clay, and the paper, and the shapes, I like too, the contrast in the shapes. 
Non-artist - Because that represents a brick wall, and, that is a component of them. I don't think I'd associate that (the paper) with it at all actually.

Box Paper: all participants 18(30%), artists 12(40%), non-artists 6(20%)                          
Artist - Doesn't look like brick to me, 'cause it consists of bricks. It's a little, oh, it's the box, made of a bricks surface, oh, interesting. It's a mausoleum! I've no idea what you gave me in the first place. So these, as the potential, it's these really, because this is how I keep knowledge, or you know it's something that is able to contain information, because of that ability to contain information.                   
Non-artist - The brick has associations, but the notebook is cuboid with straight lines.

Variety of responses
It was so interesting how many people indicated their object choice by saying something like:
Oh, I’ll just go for the obvious one.
There were too many responses and types of responses to reflect here. They are reported in full in my project paper, and are a great resource of interesting and enlightening reactions. There were other findings, results and responses from this study to be written about, made into articles, and which suggest further development and related research.

Uncertain object 

I found this object near my home at the beginnings of my discussions with Sue. When I saw it, I immediately understood it as some marvellous solid painting, and a three-dimensional manifestation of impressionism. It reminded of the image for the Monet exhibition, which I had happened to keep from the previous year. When I dug out the leaflet and saw it with the roller, the colours, forms and markings were outstandingly similar. I did not see that the object was originally a roller for some time, and thought it was some sort of seaside driftwood. So for myself, this was a truly ambiguous object, at once both art and natural. Sue called it an uncertain object. In psychological terms, that made a great platform to consider why people understand things differently, to trace through those cognitive processes, and to design a study which could present ambiguity to any participant while asking the same question.

Not immediately obvious, I presented this uncertain object and asked participants what they thought it was. Out of the 60, 3 participants recognised that this was an old paint roller.

Artist - So, the two things that stand out are, one, it could be quite poo-like. And the second one is it looks like a big stick of ganja. And I instantly made up a story of how it's ganja, and how it's smuggled, you know, and I've got the whole script written already in my head.
Non-artist - I think it's some kind of seaweed. It might be some kind of shell. It might actually be some kind of real sponge. I mean, I thought it was a courgette.

Objects triad: Roller Handle Monet
Presenting the other two choices to the Roller key, the Handle and the Monet exhibition leaflet, made it obvious to (almost) everyone what the Roller was. Both Handle and Monet have thematic and narrative implications relating to the roller, making this a task of a different sort of ambiguity to the Box Brick Paper triad. Again, the reasons for choices provided more clues as to how people decode the meanings of objects.

Results: Roller Handle Monet

Roller Monet: all participants 38(65%), artists 17(57%), non-artists 21(70%)    
Artist - I'm going to have to go with the painting of the modern garden. It's a very interesting one. Partly because of, just visually, the correlation between, Monet's water lilies and the flowers, which have the same colours as the bits of plastic inside what I consider to be a giant mouse poo, eh, now I can clearly see is actually probably a very well used paint roller, ah, or misused paint roller. Em, but you're more likely to find a giant mouse in painting of the modern garden, than in a paint roller.  Non-artist - Em, It has the same colours, this is like a ... I guess they could both be like arty representations of the same, em, pondy thing, I think it is. So it makes more sense than the roller.

Roller Handle: all participants 22(35%), artists 13(43%), non-artists 9(30%)         
Artist - Hmm I think these are clearly two bits of the same thing now I look at them, 'cause I'd already noticed there was that little red end, which means that that goes in there, so I suppose I'd categorise those two together 'cause they're part of the same, overall object. Although that is the same colour as that, and that, and it has got some nice red in it, hasn't it? No. I'm going that way – (indicates handle).
Non-artist - Eh, this explains this. So this is obviously a hardened, eh, em, a, a once used, eh, roller, paint roller. So that explains it. Eh, this would be, eh, probably used for painting, perhaps. But this is a more direct association. Or practical association.

Reasons and coding
I coded all the responses into related categories, so all the poo-related comments were collated, as were the food, manufactured, stone references and so on. It was during this coding stage that unexpected themes emerged - the differences in whether participants thought the roller was naturally formed or artificially made - the majority of non-artists thought the roller was natural - some poo, mouldy food or sea-side related, while artists mostly thought it was artificial - either made to look the way it did deliberately, or as a consequence of some other manufacturing process.

Ambiguity results
There were various measures for ambiguity during the study. My own expectation was that artists would be more comfortable with higher levels of ambiguity, and that this would mean making a choice, and thus lessening the ambiguity, would be more difficult because they would prefer the ambiguity. This was somewhat evident in the results.

Thematic and taxonomic results - differences between artists and non-artists?
If thematic is what it means, and taxonomic is what it is, then the combination somewhat defines the elements of art. In some ways, I expected artists to be both more thematic and more taxonomic, as the art crit encourages focussed analysis on both aspects. This study was innovative in several ways, one of which was asking for and coding the reasons for triad choices. Many responses in the study demonstrated that people gave more than one association, at times several associations, and a variety of thematic, taxonomic and narrative reasons for their decisions. This complexity would seem to more realistically represent concept formation than simply recording the choice without further explanations. Results showed that artists had a more taxonomic tendency but used a thematic associations strategy - narrative or memory - when making an ambiguous decision. Artists were more analytical and more likely to understand that a novel object was constructed.

Future research
Future research may look at an integrated model of category formation which includes reasons, associations and indicators given to explain triad choices. Category depends on prediction, and this study points towards a model where category concepts are formed by an interaction of strategies and associations. It would be fascinating to continue this study comparing different groups with the artists rather than a general population - scientists, writers, and so on, or to further subdivide the artists into painter, sculptors, etc.

Research applications
This research is applicable to several fields - as a contribution to the psychological study of category formations and to research in creativity, art practice and education. There are implications in the presentation and curation of art - if artists are making a set of assumptions not shared by non-artists, then different approaches and communication can bridge this gap. Many artists are interested in reflective practice, and in education, this insight can filter through, right into the fulcrum of professional art practice - the art crit.

Comparing any groups can give insight to the field of concept formation and creative thinking. Results from specific groups gives more insight into the overall cognitive processes of concept categorisation, or how we know what things are. Furthermore, several of the innovative scientific methods this study employed in this study: the structured and scripted interview, the handling of objects, the use of ambiguous and uncertain objects, and the analysis of reasons and meanings, contribute to possible methodologies.

Art and psychology research, personal and thanks
Metacognition is thinking about thinking, an awareness which is fostered in art practice. For my own practice, this project allowed me to search deeply into the core of my thinking and make new discoveries. Although I had to become a very part-time artist while studying psychology, it felt like a long but essential way round to go to where I want to be as an artist/writer/researcher. This study was clearly within the realms of psychology, and my interest is in creativity and fine art, however I believe the crossover of disciplines tends to be very fruitful.

I’m very grateful to all my participants who so kindly gave me their time and thoughts. Many sessions developed into fascinating conversations that I hope to continue. I’d also like to thank my family for their endless support, my tutors and fellow students at Hertfordshire for an enjoyable and challenging two years, and Dr Sue Anthony for inspiring and fascinating supervision of my project.

About - I am an artist, writer and researcher. I make moving image and sound, and often set up projects through my popup theViewergallery. I have an BA (Middlesex) and MA (Open College of the Arts) in fine art, and an Msc in psychology (Hertfordshire). I also work as an academic mentor and arts mentor.

Eleanor MacFarlane 2018