Preferences need inferences: Learning, valuation, and curiosity in aesthetic experience

Nov 04, 2021

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More than 40 years ago, pioneering social psychologist Robert Zajonc (1980) published his seminal work titled “Preferences need no inferences” in which he argued for the primacy of affect over cognition. Affective evaluation (the preference) comes first, he claimed, and only then do cognitive processes (the inferences) kick in. The view is untenable in light of recent predictive processing accounts of the mind, which hold that all mental functioning is built from (approximate) Bayesian inference. It casts perception, action, and learning as inference but, perhaps counterintuitively, valuation too. We discuss how valuation —understood as the process of how we come to value, prefer or like things— emerges as a function of learning and inference, and how this conception may help us resolve traditional conundrums in the science of aesthetic experience, such as the nature of the “beholder’s share”, the link between curiosity and appreciation, Keats’ “negative capability” and the tension between the mere exposure principle and the goldilocks (optimal level) principle.