Academic journal article Perception and Psychophysics

The Mysteries of the Diagonal: Gender-Related Perceptual Asymmetries

Academic journal article Perception and Psychophysics

The Mysteries of the Diagonal: Gender-Related Perceptual Asymmetries

Article excerpt

In this article, we report a perceptual asymmetry for the two diagonals that is related to gender in that females prefer the diagonal spanning from top right to bottom left (/) whereas males prefer the opposite (\). This relationship is observed in a variety of tasks, including aesthetic judgment of paintings, spotting differences between two paintings, and visual search for a tilted line among similarly tilted distractors. This article does not provide an explanation of the relationship between this asymmetry and gender but rules out several potential mediating factors, such as eye dominance, head tilt, handedness, and hemispheric differences. At the same time, the scope of the phenomenon is outlined: The asymmetry is found for both meaningful and meaningless stimuli and in both brief and extended presentations. Moreover, the asymmetry is found to be related to the tilt of the visual elements that require processing, not to their location in the visual field.

Even with little awareness of perceptual phenomena, one might notice a prevalent asymmetry between the two diagonals. Painters such as Jan van Eyck, for example, structure their paintings mostly along one of the diagonals. Thus, in a van Eyck painting furniture, floor boards, and sometimes even people lie along the diagonal spanning from the top right end of the painting to the bottom left end. The painter Jacques Louis David, on the other hand, consistently prefers the opposite diagonal: that from the top left to the bottom right.

Advertisers too tend to favor one diagonal more often than the other. Web sites of shoe vendors are a good example: All shoes are diagonally oriented in one direction in some of them and in the opposite direction in others. Another, quantifiable example can be found in the corpus of line drawings of everyday objects by Snodgrass and Vanderwart (1980). In that corpus, there are a number of elongated objects, such as a screwdriver or a spear of asparagus, all oriented diagonally. Interestingly, those oriented along one diagonal outnumber those oriented along the other by a factor greater than 2:1. Even in scientific papers, figures depicting an experimental procedure as a procession of displays a participant would experience over time use one diagonal more often than the other to represent the time sequence. It is important to note, however, that although painters and designers may be found to favor one diagonal over the other, they do not all prefer the same one. It would be interesting, therefore, to find out whether this differential preference is related to any other individual characteristics.

The asymmetry between the two diagonals is particularly intriguing since it cannot be reduced to asymmetries between the right and left hemifields (see, e.g., Kosslyn, 1987) or between the upper and lower hemifields (see, e.g., Christman, 1993; Rubin, Nakayama, & Shapley, 1996), both of which have been studied extensively. The two diagonals span both the right and left visual fields and both the upper and lower fields.

Still, like any perceptual asymmetry, if the asymmetry between the diagonals is experimentally established it would have important implications for the understanding of various aspects of visual processing, such as efficiency and preference. In particular, the asymmetry would illuminate the temporal component of the visual process: Assuming that the more efficiently processed parts of a stimulus reach a threshold of activation faster than others, it would indicate which aspects of a stimulus have precedence in visual processing-that is, which aspects have a more important role in constraining the interpretation of a visual scene.

There are at least three possible ways to conceive of precedence in visual processing. One involves a scan along the display with attention (and/or the eyes) moving from one end of the display to the other, the second relates to a differential perceptual accessibility of the content in different locations in the visual field, and the third corresponds to greater featural availability or higher salience of one type of stimulus over another. …

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