The evidence that people are drawn to shiny things is all around us: from the pages of lifestyle magazines to the page stock of lifestyle magazines. One logical explanation for this cultural affection is that we’ve come to associate gloss with wealth and luxury. If the story ended there, though, we wouldn’t expect very young infants to enjoy shiny things as much as they do, nor would we expect remote tribes like the Yolngu of Australia to celebrate shimmering aesthetics as much as they do. There’s clearly a bit more to glitter than gold.

Recently a group of marketing scholars considered the question from an evolutionary angle. They were intrigued with some earlier research showing that “children who were presented with glossy objects licked them,” one of the scholars, Vanessa M. Patrick of the University of Houston, tells Co.Design. In that work, published several years ago, infants seven to 12 months old put their mouths to glossy plates much more than to dull ones. Children had also been seen lapping shiny toys on the ground, the way an animal might drink from a puddle.

Patrick and her fellow collaborators, from Ghent University in Belgium, wondered if there might be something more to these reports than kids just being kids. Maybe the connection between drinking and shiny design was an evolutionary artifact–a sign that our crush on glossy is rooted in a primitive desire for water as a vital resource.

So they designed a series of six experiments to test that idea. First they had to demonstrate that preference for glossy is a natural reaction rather than a learned association with the good life. That wasn’t too tough. In two simple surveys, they established that both adults (via leaflets) and four- to five-year old children (via pictures of Santa) preferred glossy to matte finishes. The kids were too young to appreciate marketing efforts connecting bling with wealth; to some degree, their preference had to be innate.


The appeal of glossy might not be entirely linked to wealth, but it might still reflect a basic enjoyment of pretty things. To study that possibility, the researchers blindfolded 46 test participants and handed them a piece of paper. Half received a glossy sheet, half a matte sheet. Participants who held the glossy sheet rated it as higher quality and more attractive than those in the matte group–even without getting a look at it.

The tests suggested there’s more to glossy than cultural connection or visual appeal. Those findings alone didn’t mean a biological urge for water played a role, but the researchers did collect some clues to that effect. In the blindfold test, for instance, participants envisioned more water when asked to imagine a landscape depicted on the page–showing a perceived link between shiny and wet. In another test, this one without blindfolds, participants rated aquatic images as glossier than desert ones, although in truth there’d been no difference.

As a final experiment, the researchers divided 126 test participants into three groups. One group ate a bunch of crackers without any water. Another ate the crackers but also drank some water. A third did neither. Afterward, each group looked at eight photographs, half on glossy paper and half on matte. All three groups preferred the glossy pictures, but the groups that had eaten crackers rated them as much more attractive. And the thirstier participants got–in other words, the greater their desire for water–the more they preferred glossy.

Taking all their findings together, the researchers argue in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology that an instinct for water may indeed play a role in fondness for glossy. “First and foremost, this paper shows that our preference for glossy might be deep-rooted and very human,” says Patrick. “It is humbling to acknowledge that despite our sophistication and progress as a species, we are still drawn to things that serve our innate needs–in this case, the need for water.”

There’s a great deal to like about this study. The researchers crafted their experiments carefully, tried to eliminate alternative explanations, and presented a theory for others scientists to explore further. At the same time, there’s a lot to question. People may associate shiny stuff with wealth, for instance, but they associate water with wealth, too. Parsing out how much of the glossy-water connection is socialized and how much might be instinctual is a great challenge that no study can hope to conquer on its own.

Beyond that, any explanation for why we prefer glossy to matte must also account for the fact that we don’t always prefer glossy to matte. Sometimes glossy interferes with readability (say, a sign that reflects bright light). Sometimes it conveys the wrong message (say, a glossy food ad that conjures up thoughts of grease). And sometimes it’s just enough already and we want something different. Evolution might drive some preferences, but preferences evolve, too.


Eric Jaffe is an editor at CityLab, where he writes about transportation, history, and behavioral science, among other topics, through the lens of urban life. He's also the author of The King's Best Highway (2010) and A Curious Madness (2014)

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