Our brains have evolved to protect us from harm by constantly scanning stimuli received through our senses for danger. Our brains do this primarily at the subconscious level – if we had to consciously evaluate all the stimuli that we receive we would have little ability to focus on anything else. One key way our brains decide whether somethings is dangerous is whether it is familiar. Our brains typically decide that the familiar usually falls within the “not dangerous” category. This makes sense — if we’ve encountered it before then we know how to deal with it.
The tendency for us to approach, rather than avoid the familiar gives rise to a phenomenon called the “mere exposure effect” which posits that if we are exposed to something repeatedly we’ll end up liking it more.
The mere exposure effect was first proposed by Robert Zajonc in 1968. Dr. Zajonc performed a number of strange experiments where he showed arbitrary things such as Japanese pictograms and made-up words to volunteers and then asked them to rate them. What Zajonc found was that he was able to cause people to like things just by showing it to them several times. His conclusion was that the brain classifies familiar things as good things.
In research published in 2001, Dr. Zajonc found that the mere exposure effect can be totally subliminal as volunteers showed images for a fraction of a second — not long enough to register in consciousness — later said they liked those images more than new ones to which they hadn’t been exposed.
The mere exposure effect means that simply being exposed to something — whether an object, idea, food, music, etc. — may be enough to make us like the thing to which we’re being exposed.
Examples of where the mere exposure effect operates
Music. A previous IFOD titled why do we like the music we do? delves into our music tastes. While research has found multiple factors that influence what we like, a major factor is familiarity. We like music that sounds like music we already like.
Celebrities. Social media like Instagram has greatly increased the ability of various celebrities to become ubiquitous. The more we are exposed to particular celebrities, the more we tend to like them. (Of course, I’m sure you can think of counter-examples where repetition creates dislike – the mere exposure effect mainly works where we don’t have an initial negative reaction.)
Politics. The mere-exposure effect partially explains the incumbency effect and why candidates who are otherwise known and familiar often win. Examples include TV/Movie stars Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, pro-wrestler and actor Jesse “the Body” Ventura, football star Jack Kemp, famous war general Dwight Eisenhower, and astronaut John Glenn. Groundbreaking research from 1973 concluded “campaigns in which obscure candidates attempt to win offices via extensive mass media advertisements for ‘name recognition’ can expect a high degree of success” due to the mere exposure effect.
Ideas and Political Views. In addition to the mere exposure effect helping already familiar candidates, it also can make us more likely to favorably view various ideas or ideologies. Familiarity with ideas tends to make us be open to or like those ideas more. Research from the University of Arkansas found that the repetition of right-wing authoritarian ideas caused them to be more accepted. Basically, ideas that may seem outlandish can gain purchase through repetition as the idea gains familiarity. A caveat is that exposure to ideas tends to generate positive association only when the person exposed is primed to be receptive to the message. Exposure to a message to which the listener has a negative reaction can drive them to oppose the message. Check out this research on this point.
Chain Stores. The mere exposure effect is partially responsible for the success of chain restaurants, hotels, and stores.
We are much less in control of our thoughts, likes and preferences than we think we are. Many of our preferences are determined subconsciously. Social media and the internet is having a huge effect on what products, people and ideas we like. It may make sense to occasionally use our conscious brains to re-examine why we prefer the things we do.