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The Mere Exposure Effect: Practical Psychology

Newnan, GA

Have you ever noticed how you tend to enjoy things more after you encounter them a few times? Whether it's a song, a classmate, or even a particular brand at the supermarket, there is a link between familiarity and preference. This occurrence is a psychological phenomenon called the mere exposure effect. In this article, we'll look at the mere exposure effect, explore its real-life applications, and investigate the science behind why familiarity increases preference.

What is the mere exposure effect?


The mere exposure effect is a pattern in psychology that suggests people usually develop a preference for things they are exposed to repeatedly. Simply put, the more you encounter something, the more you'll like it. This phenomenon was first explored by psychologist Robert Zajonc in the 1960s.


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Graph of preference vs. exposure, according to the mere exposure effect

Zajonc conducted several experiments where participants were shown various shapes, symbols, and even gibberish words for different amounts of time. He found that participants consistently rated the symbols they had seen more often as more “likable” than those they had seen less frequently. This may show that familiarity plays a significant role in shaping our preferences, even at such a basic level.


Some examples of the mere exposure effect


1. Music: Have you ever discovered music through videos or ads? Perhaps you found a song that was on a TikTok and actually sounded quite nice. That could be the mere exposure effect at work. Having previously encountered a song in another context increases your enjoyment when listening to it by itself through this very effect.


2. Advertising: Advertisers are well aware of the mere exposure effect. They use it to their advantage by showering us with their products and slogans through repeated ads and exposure. Though it intermixes with other psychological strategies used in marketing, the mere exposure effect definitely plays a role in loyalty and brand recognition.


3. Social Relationships: In school, when you first enter a new class, classmates may seem alien or awkward, even straight unlikable. However, as the semester/year goes on, you become more comfortable talking with or even making friends with these people. Even classmates that are not frequently interacted with are more comfortably viewed, because of your familiarity and exposure.


The science behind the mere exposure effect


So, why does this phenomenon occur? The answer is in our brain's processing of information. When we encounter something new, our brain examines it for any potential threat and danger, which may manifest to us as a fear of new things and change. However, if the person, brand, etc., is proven to be safe, repeated exposure reduces our initial discomfort, making us more accepting and even fond of what was once unfamiliar.



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The brain

Additionally, the brain has a preference for processing familiar information because it requires less effort/thinking power. An analogy could be like when you first learn to ride a bike; it's challenging and requires a lot of focus. However, with practice, it becomes second nature and you don't have to think about it as much. The same idea applies to the mere exposure effect; our brains prefer the path of least resistance.


The mere exposure effect is an interesting subject of psychology that impacts our preferences and views throughout our entire lives. It shows that familiarity is an influential force that shapes our likes and dislikes. Whether it’s the music you enjoy, the products you buy, or the people you befriend, the mere exposure effect is always at play. Understanding our biases and thought patterns can help us make better decisions and appreciate the subtle ways our minds work.


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