“The more you’re exposed to something, the more you tend to like it“
Think of some of your favorite songs. Did you like them the first time you heard them? I doubt it. Maybe you neither loved nor hated the song on day one. But after listening to it again and again, you felt, “this has a nice ring to it.”
In no time, you started humming the song. Over time, it landed on your list of all-time favorites.
In this article, we will cover:
- What the mere exposure effect is
- Real-life examples and how it affects you
- How to avoid bad decisions and use the effect for better relationships
What is the mere exposure effect?
The mere exposure effect is the tendency to develop a preference for things merely due to being familiar with them. Such behavior occurs with words, songs, faces, shapes, and so on. The effect is common with visual and auditory(sound) information. It is one of the cognitive biases of the human brain.
You do not always need a positive response the first time you encounter something. Even if you have a neutral reaction, you can develop a liking after further familiarity. But, if you dislike something the first time, the chances of repeated exposure changing your impression is unlikely.
Here is a visual which shows how the effect works:
During the first encounter, you do not come to any conclusion. For example, if you have never heard a song from the Beatles before, you do not turn into their die-hard fan in a day or two. The first time, you might find their songs ordinary.
A few more encounters later, you start developing a liking. The Beatles sound better now. You even feel like playing one of their songs out of your choice.
After listening to the band again and again, you start liking them further. You have now heard a few songs from the Beatles repeatedly. You ensure you play some of their songs every time you listen to music.
But you won’t always love anything and everything with more exposure. How much you like something depends on how often you encounter it and the gap between each occurrence.
For example, you will like a song if you hear it for the first time today and the next time after a few days. If you had to listen to the same song 10 times on the same day, you would start hating it. Likewise, meeting a person of the opposite sex once a week can create attraction. Spotting the person around you all the time indicates a stalker.
Overexposure can create an adverse effect, especially when you encounter the same thing repeatedly within a short period.
Why the mere exposure effect occurs?
Though the reason for the mere exposure effect is uncertain, scientists have associated fear playing a part during evolution. When our ancestors roamed on the earth trying their best to survive, they chose things they were familiar with.
If they found two fruits, they would eat the one they had seen before. If they had to choose between two caves to sleep, they chose the one they had visited before. The people who picked the familiar option had higher chances of survival. Over the years, the race that survived was the one who chose familiarity.
Research and experiments conducted
Various researchers have studied the mere exposure effect for decades. Gustav Fechner’s research dates back to the 1870s. Edward Titchener referred to familiarity as a “glow of warmth.”
Robert Zajonc performed the most detailed research on the effect from the 1960s. He observed the impact not only on human beings but also in most living organisms. His studies in 1968 showed how living things exhibit fear or resistance to something new. With enough exposure, the fear reduces, and fondness towards the new object increases.
His experiments began with language and words. He found people using more positive than negative words. His research extended further into geometric shapes, drawings, nonsensical words, and so on.
Zajonc proposed the affective primacy hypothesis, which indicated that living things exhibit liking without logical thought. His theory was, even if the repeated exposure happened without your knowledge, you would still develop a liking.
One such experiment involved playing tones of two different frequencies to unhatched eggs. After they hatched, researchers played both the sounds to each set of eggs. The chicken chose the tone played to it while it was within the egg.
The modified version of the experiment involved showing images to people for a fraction of a second. The picture appeared so quickly that the observers couldn’t even perceive what they saw.
For example, I flash a picture of a person whom you have never seen before. But the speed at which the image appears and disappears is so quick that you don’t even realize what you saw. Yet, your subconscious mind is powerful enough to notice what you glimpsed.
If you had to pick between 3 pictures sometime later, you tend to choose the person you saw for a moment, even if you don’t remember the face. If you meet him after, you also have a higher tendency to like the person and hold a better conversation.
Such a method, called subliminal exposure, creates a stronger liking than regular repetition where you know what’s going on. But, you won’t usually encounter an instant flash of information in real life. Subliminal messages are possible in a lab or an application designed for that purpose alone.
Other psychologists such as Goetzinger, Bornstein, Zola–Morgan have conducted variations of these experiments to prove the mere exposure effect.
One such research involved 130 students who had enrolled for a college course. Throughout the course, 4 women chosen by the researchers, who had a similar physical appearance attended classes.
Three of the women attended 5, 10, and 15 classes in total each. The fourth woman never showed up for a single class but posed as a student for a photograph. Students had to rate the pictures of these 4 women for familiarity and attractiveness.
The results showed no apparent difference in familiarity, but a substantial effect on attractiveness was observed. Subjects found the lady who attended 15 classes more attractive than the others.
Common examples of the mere exposure effect:
1. Sales and advertising:
Marketing campaigns use the mere exposure effect to improve sales. One of the key tactics of marketing is to trigger your brain with the product the company is trying to sell. TV ads use the same technique to feed the item into your mind. If not, the commercials would serve no purpose.
For example, when you watch your favorite sportsperson drink a bottle of soda, you won’t run to the supermarket to buy one. But next time you walk past the rack in the store, you suddenly remember, “Oh, I have to try this.” When millions of people around the world do the same, the ad turns profitable.
For the same reason, meaningless but funny commercials with a catchy song work wonders. They do nothing to explain the product but register the brand in your brain. For the same reason, companies spend big bucks to display their logo in all the right places.
Have you tried looking for a specific product on the internet and found similar ads on every site you visit? Shopping sites know what you’re looking for, and they target those exact ads to you. When you use the internet, your browser stores some context of your usage. Advertisers use that data to try and make a sale.
If you searched for a TV on Amazon recently, it stores that information. When you’re on Facebook, Amazon uses that information to display paid ads for you.
The repeated ads you see all over the internet are an intentional marketing technique used by sellers.
2. Your regular shopping
Many of your shopping choices run on instinct than a clear reason. When I visit the supermarket, I choose the same shampoo, soap, cereal, or peanut butter by default. On some occasions, I make an exception, but only if I see a reasonable benefit with features or price.
You make many purchase decisions on autopilot. If someone asked me, “Why do you buy that shampoo?” I would not have a clear answer. I would stammer and say, “Because I have used it for a long time and I like it.” I prefer the product due to familiarity, not the benefit.
For the little decisions which you do not care about, you spot some benefit the first time. Once you try it yourself, if you don’t dislike the experience, you tend to stick to the choice. You consider making an exception only if you identify a strong reason.
3. The best sellers
Some of your decisions are influenced by what you’ve seen and heard before.
If you want to develop a habit of reading books, you will choose a well-known bestseller. When picking a movie to watch, the one making the rounds on the news and social media comes to your mind first.
You even tend to like the book and the movie you picked because of familiarity. Selecting the known option isn’t always the right choice. For example, choosing a famous novel to read when your interest lies in self-improvement books is a poor decision.
Even if you are more of a self-help person, which one would you pick to read next – To kill a mocking bird or Deep Work? Most people choose the first option because they have heard the name somewhere before.
4. Personal relationships
Your trust and comfort with people depend on familiarity. You might argue saying, “Ok, Captain Obvious. Of course, I trust the people I know more than a random person on the street. What’s your point?” The point is, you trust people you have met a few times even if you do not know the person enough.
Let’s say you have seen a person a few times in the cafeteria at the workplace. One day, you want to make your taste buds experience something new. Two people give you suggestions on a dish you’ve never tried before.
One is the person you’d seen before, and the other is an entirely fresh face. You have a higher chance of accepting the advice from the familiar person even though both suggestions hold equal value.
Familiarity also leads to friendship and even romantic relationships. You date a classmate or a coworker because attraction increases when you meet the person regularly. Such an effect is called the propinquity effect.
The same effect occurs over phone calls. If you reach out to customer service of a brand often, you prefer talking to a specific person, even if you have never seen his face. You will notice the same behavior with email conversations too, even though you don’t know how the person looks or sounds like. All you have is a name, but when you repeatedly see the name, you trust the person more than an unknown.
5. Your comfort zone
Some of your favorites, likes, and comfort stem from familiarity. I like coastal cuisine because I have eaten boatloads of seafood over the last few decades. You love your country or city because you have lived there long enough. You feel comfortable speaking in your mother tongue because you have spoken more of it than any other language.
Some of your favorites are things you genuinely like. But repetition can also influence many of your choices. If I were born and brought up in Mexico, I would prefer tacos over salmon today.
Your comfort zone revolves around areas you’re most familiar with. Your constant exposure to things makes you accustomed to all possibilities. You feel relaxed around such choices.
But again, your decision can differ based on your purpose. For example, if you had to choose a city to settle, you will select a place you’re most comfortable with. But, if you have to go on a vacation, you will pick a scenic spot that you haven’t seen before.
How to overcome the mere exposure effect?
The mere exposure effect does not cause any significant consequences. It only leads to a liking without any rational thought. You won’t be able to prevent your instinct of preferring things you’re familiar with. You can, however, prevent some of the poor choices you make.
Ask yourself why:
When you find yourself leaning towards a particular choice, ask yourself why. If you’re buying a car, ask yourself, why did you pick the specific model? If you have a reasonable explanation and logic behind the decision, you’re making a thoughtful decision.
But, also make sure you don’t ask yourself the question for every little thing. Many of your daily decisions make no significant difference to your life. I am happy with any soap, so asking myself why am I picking that particular brand is a waste of time. If you like a specific brand of clothing, trying to identify the reason serves no purpose.
Ask yourself why only if the decision can lead to consequences that you care about.
Use the effect to build rapport:
The awareness of the effect can help you build better relationships with people. If you want to earn the trust of another team you work with, meet them, or strike a conversation more often. If you want to get along with your partners’ friend circle, show up now and then. The chances of people feeling comfortable around you if you show up once in a year are unlikely.
Salespeople use the same technique with their potential customers. Staying in touch, the birthday wishes, an occasional text are ways to make themselves more familiar and likable. When it comes to making a buying decision, the customer makes an unconscious choice towards the person who remained in contact.
Familiarity forms the foundation of any relationship. If the frequency of interaction did not bring two people closer, you would not form a genuine bond with anybody. The mere exposure effect helps us survive in a social circle as friends, lovers, parents, or siblings.
You will grow fond of the people you meet often, the cuisine you try regularly, and the surroundings you experience every day. Do not try to fight that natural instinct within you. All you need to do is, evaluate before making any major decisions based on familiarity or likeability.
What I am not:
What I am:
Continuously improving self-learner
Productivity/Time Management Obsessed