My Bed 1998, by Tracey Emin, one of the most celebrated and influential artists of her generation. (Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Observer)

Ten years ago researchers in America took two groups of three-year-olds and showed them a blob of paint on a canvas. Children who were told that the marks were the result of an accidental spillage showed little interest. The others, who had been told that the splodge of colour had been carefully created for them, started to refer to it as “a painting”.

Now that experiment – conducted by Paul Bloom, a Yale academic, and psychologist Susan Gelman – has gone on to form part of the foundation of an influential new book that questions the way in which we respond to art.

Bloom’s study, How Pleasure Works, which will be out this week, argues that there is no such thing as a pure aesthetic judgment. In developing his general theory about how humans decide what they like or dislike, he lines up evidence to show that what people believe about a work of art is crucial to the way they feel about it. He goes on to suggest that modern art collectors are partly motivated by the way they wish to be seen by the rest of the world.

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