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Across the board, cars have shiny paint (which looks great), while computers, laptops and phones etc. tend to have a dull finish to them.

What’s the logic/psychology behind this?

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    Personal antidote - I saw a car with a matte finish not too long ago and was just utterly mesmerized by it. Totally blew my notion of what should be. It was really interesting! – Evil Closet Monkey May 4 '16 at 3:54
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    I share the same experience when i saw a matte finished car. And immediately I felt as if its the reflection of the persona driving the car. As if it was loud and clearly telling that look i am creative, cool and sporty. Hey I have attitude. – pzv May 4 '16 at 6:53
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    I once saw a car with a matte black finish. It was late at night, and other than its headlights, it was practically invisible. I would not want to be driving on the same road as that car. – Mark H May 4 '16 at 9:44
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    The matte black Tesla 3 was a hit: twitter.com/search?q=tesla%203%20matte%20black&src=typd – Neil McGuigan May 4 '16 at 19:06
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    My phone is shiny and so are many of my devices. Is this a real phenomenon? Does it pass the null-hypothesis test? – user207421 May 4 '16 at 22:54
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Practical origins defined our tastes

When car finishes became shiny (because they weren't always) [1,2] due to the availability of the required technology and paint materials, it was mostly for practical purposes - cost effectiveness, weather resistance, rain run-off, aerodynamics, ease of cleaning.

Consumers found the attention-grabbing gleam of a shiny paint job quite attractive [2], the market adapted to meet that demand, and before long all cars were shiny.

The practical side of the matte finish on devices, especially portable devices, is that matte surfaces are easier to hold, and look cleaner for longer because fingerprints don't show up.

So in both cases, it's likely that practical considerations led to the birth of a look, and that look resonated with consumers. So we like and desire the cars and devices that look like the ones everyone else has, because that's what's being sold, not because they are shiny or matte.

(note: I'm aware that many new cars are being made available in matte finishes, and there is no shortage of glossy portable devices, but I think my point still holds)

But why do we like shiny/glossy things?

That's not currently clear, though there is a clear preference. This report on an interesting study from the Journal of Consumer Psychology proposes a link between glossiness and wetness, suggesting our attraction to shiny things is deeply rooted in the need to seek out water.


1 - https://blog.allstate.com/history-of-automotive-paint/

2 - http://www.protectall.com/artpaints.aspx

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    Seems plausible. Can you add some resources? – jazZRo May 4 '16 at 6:14
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    One other practical consideration: I have a phone with shiny glassy casing front and back (Sony Z3 Compact) and as well as constantly being covered in fingerprints, it slips off tables and surfaces troublingly easily. When choosing devices now, I find ones which look like they have a little friction to them (i.e. matt) more appealing. – user568458 May 4 '16 at 9:43
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    Isn't Dennett's argument basically a reskin of "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to observe it, does it make a sound?" with an answer of "no"? A tree falling in the forest produces vibrations, none of which are, strictly, sound; it requires an observer wired to translate those vibrations into what we perceive as sound. But the intrinsic properties of the tree and its effects don't change whether there is an observer or not. – GalacticCowboy May 4 '16 at 16:22
  • @GalacticCowboy - perhaps, but not in any way that is really meaningful. Both concepts are similar in that they only make sense when we humans, with our self-aware minds, start applying concepts like sound and desire to phenomena like physical impact and specularity, respectively. – dennislees May 4 '16 at 17:10
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    Shinyness (reflectivity) is an externally definable physical property unlike sweetness though, no? You can study the molecules of a mirror and fully understand why it is shiny – AlexFoxGill May 5 '16 at 9:39
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I suspect this is partly function of utilitarian materials choice, as well as customer choice. Customers have certainly pulled car colour choices down to a narrow range of gloss or metallic colours.

Cars are painted metal surfaces that are required to withstand weathering, power-washing, minor abrasions and so on. However, they're not usually handled. The paint has multiple layers and the top is a protective 'clearcoat' which provides the glossy finish. Getting a matte finish with comparable durability is apparently hard.

Gloss finishes on cars show off the lines of the car in the specular highlights.

Devices tend to be injection-moulded plastic which does not require painting and available in either matte or gloss. Not all devices are matte, but it's a common choice for those which will be handled because the gloss surface shows scratches and fingerprints easily. Gloss cars show fingerprints as well, it's just that you're rarely close enough to see them. Matte surfaces are also slightly easier to grip.

A quick look around my desk shows that matte black is incredibly popular among unobtrusive office hardware. If the manufacturer had made it in gloss neon yellow, it would stand out - but that's not what office equipment is expected to do.

Not all devices are plastic. Another common choice is aluminium, which is again usually given the brushed finish that doesn't show fingerprints and scratches. Apple caused a lot of excitement when they brought out the extremely glossy glass-backed iPhones.

  • Interesting points. Any references? – Midas May 4 '16 at 10:24
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Perhaps because cars were primarily designed to sit within & not to look at from outside and at close quarters. If they dazzled another car user on the road, well that was collateral damage. (Even in cars the internal trim is unpainted & matte not glossy.A car with glossily painted interiors would be crazy distracting to travel in I expect)

Devices on the other had get a lot of close quarter viewing & hence a glossy surface with the attendant reflections would be highly distracting to the user & detracts from the primary purpose of the device. You may admire a typical car from tens of feet away but use a typical device at just a few inches away from your eyes. Glossy coatings are more distracting the closer you must be to the device.

Another reason I can think of is the superior damage resistance of glossy paints. In the early days of painting technology at least. From what I recall glossy paints have relatively more of the binder and less of the pigment. That I think makes for a stronger coating (though modern paint technology has found ways to overcome this constraint even in matte coatings)

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I believe one reason might be that shiny surface will reflect the light, making it hard for the user to see the screen. while a dull finish like matte won't reflect the light so much.

In terms of taste and trends, i think the mobile phone industry has gone past the 'shiny and new' trend towards a giving phones a sturdy feel.

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