Science, Art, Litt, Science based Art & Science Communication
Evidence of “ art auction psychology”: For all their success, it’s likely some of the world’s savviest business leaders and ultrahigh-wealth individuals get swept up —just like anybody might — in the thrill of the moment of art auction bidding.
Art valuation is inherently circular, and the increasing use of third-party guarantees can certainly skew auction numbers. Economically speaking, an artwork is worth what someone’s willing to pay for it. At the same time, just because someone is prepared to pay $81.4 million on Grainstacks doesn’t mean that’s the Monet’s inherent value.
Here’s a look at what researchers are discovering about the invisible forces that entice big-league art buyers...and the tactics used by auctioneers...
Before they set foot on the floor, big names like Leonardo DiCaprio and Steve Wynn are subtly — and not so subtly — primed to bid to win, even if that means overpaying. Economists call this heart-racing factor “auction fever,” which they’ve observed with live and online bidding. ... Then ...
the phenomenon from a bidders’ perspective, writing that their “adrenaline starts to rush, their emotions block their ability to think clearly, and they end up bidding more than they ever envisioned.” Hah! They have been fooled to go the peripheral processing way!
A central part of “auction fever” is the time crunch, when they have only a few seconds to decide it makes bidders' pulse quicken when they have to think on their feet or make a big decision quickly. But a pair of experiments, published in 2015, found evidence of a physiological connection between that pulse-quickening and higher auction prices. A team of German and Australian scientists measured people’s heart rates and electrodermal response to gauge their excitement level during “ascending auctions”— where the goal is to outbid someone else, like big-league art sales — varying time constraints and competitive intensity. Under more time-pressured conditions, participants’ biological signals increased, and they placed higher bids!
David Forbes, a cognitive psychologist and author of The Science of Why: Decoding Human Motivation and Transforming Market Strategy, applies neuroscience methods to uncover the subconscious emotions and aspirations that drive consumer decisions, something he calls the “MindSight process.” According to him, it takes about a tenth of a second to recognize exactly what you’re seeing. But it’s the next 500 to 700 milliseconds that are crucial to an auction house — where the game is won or lost — because that’s when the brain is primarily focused on emotional processing of an image. By 800 or 900 milliseconds, activity occurs in the prefrontal cortex, where higher mental processing about the artwork takes over.
So Christie’s and Sotheby’s have only about 700 milliseconds to sneak under the radar, before an art collector’s intellectual, linear thought prevails. “The job of the auction house is to create desire around objects, and a lot of that will come before the sale". Publishing impressive catalogues, staging pre-auction viewings — even flying paintings for previews around the world —all encourage emotional attachment before buyers takes their seats in auction houses.
The best auctioneers are “astute psychological readers” of the room. A good auctioneer knows the budgets and buying habits of his bidders — and he’s aware of everyone’s body language in that room. Eye contact is crucial. An auctioneer looks at each bidder, as if he or she is the only one in the room.
Auctioneers also have a surprising theatrical advantage up their sleeves: They’re allowed to fabricate bids from thin air to create the appearance of greater demand for a painting to meet its reserve (the minimum price a consignor agrees a piece can sell for). The auction world refers to the somewhat controversial practice as “chandelier bids,” because an auctioneer might point to a light fixture or some other random spot in the room, pretending someone has actually raised a paddle. A wealthy buyer may very well be spending tens or hundreds of thousands to beat an imaginary opponent for his dream work! Another , Hah!
scientists who measured time pressure, heart rate, and electrodermal response also found that auction fever exists only when bidders are engaged in social competition. Study participants took part in auctions with either other human bidders or computerized programs — and when they bid against computer opponents, their bodies’ physiological excitement levels were lower than when they bid against other humans.
So they bid art works for higher prices just to show off!
Ironically, psychological evidence suggests bidders misjudge how much other collectors really care about them. Known as the “spotlight effect,” studies have found that people tend to overestimate attention from an audience, believing the “social spotlight shines more brightly on them than it really does.” Feelings of rivalry, however, may push prices up, as the super wealthy can travel in rather tight circles. “When you have face-to-face bidding at these auctions, you may have people who’ve dealt with each other in business before and neither likes to be seen losing publicly.
Art valuation is an inherently subjective process. Taste in contemporary art is quite variable and can be influenced in surprising ways (perhaps because it’s newer and less proven). People will rate the cheaper stuff highly, if they think it’s expensive. What’s more, using brain scans, German neuroscientists recently showed that people’s perception of a wine’s vintage altered their neurological experience drinking it. In other words, prejudice about an item’s worth might distort a buyer’s neural chemistry.
Art bidders experience this same sort of bias and brain activity. For instance, research with psychologist Angelika Seidel showed that people put a higher value on artwork hung at a height where they must lift their head slightly to view it. Likewise the size of an artist’s signature on a canvas significantly affects the value of work at auction and fairs. “The frame a piece is in, the color of the wall, the glamour of the setting, the price of a painting, all highly impact how someone feels about artwork and how much someone will pay for it.”
Auctions are all about creating hype and mystique — though it’s the price tag that “literally endows [the artwork] with value.” This psychological bias is called “anchoring,” and the idea is that the size of an opening bid — or the painting’s auction estimate or previous sale — creates rose-colored glasses for buyers. If a house sets an estimate too low, collectors tend to find the piece less valuable to them.
The “endowment effect” — people’s tendency to overvalue things they already have, even for an unbelievably short period is used cleverly by autioneers. In one famous experiment, participants who were first given a chocolate bar were unwilling to trade it for a coffee mug, while those given the coffee cup wouldn’t trade it for the candy bar. In another case, once someone owned a mug, they required nearly twice as much to buy it from them than they were willing to pay for a new one. Auction houses try to boost bidders’ feelings of ownership and “loser’s regret” — the anticipated fear of missing out — whenever possible.
“Once you bid on artwork it’s yours and now suddenly, the next bidder wants to take it from you.” Which is, once again, why a skilled auctioneer is part sophisticated salesman, part amateur psychologist — who knows just how to sway the world’s richest art buyers. “Throughout the art auctions, you’ll see them say things like ‘No regrets,’ ‘Last bid — are you sure?,’ ‘Are you back in?’ and ‘Don’t let him have it.”
The latest Grainstacks owner may have set a market record. But ultimately, the price of a Monet could say as much about how people behave in the heat of the moment as it does the enduring beauty of Impressionist art.