Being around beauty causes all sorts of emotions: most often happiness or joy, but a euphoric feeling or even sadness and greediness are also common. But how do these beauty connected feelings guide our actions? What are their behavioral consequences? What does it mean to be motivated by beauty?
Motivation is an emotion that sits on the threshold between thinking about doing something and actually doing it. A human fascination for this correlation between motivation and action goes back a long way. Leonardo da Vinci is said to have claimed: “Every action needs to be prompted by a motive.”
So how do our actions come about? Do we actually choose what we do? Or do we just stumble around blindly? Are most of our actions a result of conscious decisions? Or are we driven by motives beyond our scope? Where does beauty come in? What is the interconnection between motivation and beauty?
One of the current scholars on this concept, Lambert Deckers, defines motivation as “to be moved into action.” He states: “motivations refers to the why of behavior, (.. and not the how)” (Deckers, 2018, pp. 19).  Building on this ‘why’, when he mentions the role of beauty, he refers to evolutionary psychology. Looking at beauty through this lens actually means that our sensitivity to it is a psychological mechanism, stemming from natural selection or sexual selection in human evolution. The approach goes back to Darwin’s proposition which states that ultimately we are all wired according to principles that are linked to the procreation of the human species.
In classical Darwinian theory, only a certain kind of beauty plays a role: the type that refers to outward appearance. Here, the sole importance of beauty has to do with the fact that characteristics of what we regard as a beautiful human being can be traced back to certain aspects of healthiness which are important for the securing of offspring. It is this principle that lies at the heart of the title of the seminal publication on this topic by the American Harvard psychologist Nancy Etcoff: Survival of the Prettiest. Hers is the quote “In the United States more money is spent on beauty than on education or social services.”.
“In the United States more money is spent on beauty than on education or social services.“
So although it is obvious that the physical aspect of beauty is strongly linked to the existence of an entire industry, one could ask if the buck stops at this purely evolutionary view of beauty’s role in human motivation. Does it do justice to the complexity and significance of beauty as a driving force behind our behavior?
Personally I don’t think so. The role of beauty as a motivational driver in other areas of life than breeding, is conspicuously absent in the psychology of motivation. Surprising, in fact, since we also go into nature to find beauty, buy beautiful art because it inspires us, love beautiful interiors that make us feel great, attend Mass to find spiritual beauty etc. etc. Maybe with some explanatory effort procreation might also be linked to all these sorts of human actions, but we would seriously have to stretch Darwin’s’ view about passing on our fittest genes. Beauty’s motivational role is about much more than just physical attraction.
Why is it important to gain a broader view on beauty and motivational psychology? Well, this knowledge may help us better understand to what extent beauty moves and drives us, and thus give us more control over our lives. Nowadays many professions apply knowledge from theories about human motivation o design situations aimed at influencing our behavior. For specialists in fields like health behavior, traffic behavior, or buying behavior, human motivational theories are a must. They often also apply tools related to beauty. Catering to our longing to be seduced by some dreamy image or story makes us actually want to jump through the commercial, or whatever sort of hoop they hold in front of us.
Thus, if we aspire to have as much control over our own lives as possible, some curiosity about theories of human behavior and motivation – and beauty’s role – might be helpful. How much of our beauty seeking buying, leisure, travel or even mating behavior is actually contributing to our personal well-being? And maybe wider even: is beauty as a behavioral guide contributing to a thriving planet? Or do we sometimes damage our planet by our search for beauty?
Many answers will circle back to the ‘why’ of our behavior. But not just to from an evolutionary perspective: beauty as a driving force can also be explored in social psychology, aesthetic psychology, environmental psychology and the psychology of religion. All these knowledge domains can provide us with deeper insights into various aspects of beauty.
“Know thyself” is an old Greek exhortation inscripted in the temple of Apollo in Delphi. This adage compels us to look in the mirror and acquire as much self-knowledge as possible. Some self-awareness about how our actions are driven by the search for beauty (of whatever sort) surely would please the Greek author of the inscription.
- A short video about how it all started: A Beautiful Journey
- More info about Project Beauty is available on the website.
- The questionnaire that is at the heart of the project can be found here. (US version)
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- So far the core survey of Project Beauty has been used for national representative surveys in five European countries, the USA and Peru. Project Beauty now covers data about perceptions of beauty of over half a billion people worldwide.
- Recently we also started offering an in-company version of this inspiring project. In case you are interested to learn more about applying Project Beauty within your organisation: please contact us.
- Project Beauty was made possible by the generous support of various research agencies: Dynata, @Blauw Research, @PanelBase @Datum Internacional) and numerous wonderful individuals.
- To support Project Beauty you can purchase your country version (e-)book from the Seeking Beauty series.
- Please contact us in case you are interested in a branded version of these books as a special value-based corporate gift.