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Viewing challenging art lends meaning to life by stimulating integrative complexity
The Journal of Positive Psychology (2021)
Henrik Hagtvedt & Kathleen Vohs

What is the psychological value of consuming art? Four experiments tested whether and how art can lend meaning to life. This research relies on a rudimentary distinction between low art (presenting familiar objects in a simple, straightforward manner) and high art (presenting the same familiar objects with a dose of complexity).

We predicted and found that high (vs. low) art elevates the sense that life has meaning, because it stimulates integrative complexity, a cognitive process in which disparate information is combined into unified, coherent representations. These integrated thoughts pique interest, leading to the sense of life’s meaningfulness.

Moreover, the results of two experiments point to the psychological benefits of viewing low (vs. high) art, namely the sense that life is happy. It seems that the relative lack of complex, integrated thoughts stimulated by low art, along with facilitated processing fluency, befits positive feelings about one’s life.


Integrative complexity is a research psychometric that refers to the degree to which thinking and reasoning involve the recognition and integration of multiple perspectives and possibilities and their interrelated contingencies.

Integrative complexity is a measure of the intellectual style used by individuals or groups in processing information, problem-solving, and decision making. Complexity looks at the structure of one's thoughts, while ignoring the contents. It is scorable from almost any verbal materials: writtenmaterials, such as books, articles, letters, and transcript; as well as audio-visual material.

The measure of integrative complexity has two components: differentiation and integration. Differentiation refers to the perception of different dimensions when considering an issue. Integration refers to the recognitionof cognitive connections among differentiated dimensions or perspectives.


Biculturals take part, to varying degrees, in the life of two or more cultures. They adapt their attitudes, behaviors, and values to these cultures and they combine and blend aspects of the cultures involved (see here).

It has long been known that there are many advantages to being bicultural such as having a greater number of social networks, being aware of cultural differences, taking part in the life of two or more cultures, being an intermediary between cultures, and so on. Recent research shows that biculturals are also characterized by greater creativity and professional success...

The authors of the study explained this enhanced creativity and professional success in biculturals by means of a psychological mechanism, integrative complexity, which is the capacity and willingness to acknowledge the legitimacy of competing perspectives on the same issue, on the one hand, and the ability to forge conceptual links among these perspectives, on the other. It is a capacity that involves considering and combining multiple perspectives.
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