What is the Mere-Exposure Effect?
Imagine you are a caveman, and encounter two fruits: one that you’ve seen before, and one that you haven’t. Which are you more likely to eat? The cavemen who picked the bush they hadn’t seen before tended not to survive as long (for obvious reasons). For this reason, we have more positive feelings about people and things we have seen before than those we haven’t seen before. This effect exists even when we have seen something neutrally; positive exposure is not necessary. Well it might be a case of the mere-exposure effect.
The effect refers to the tendency to develop a preference for something merely due to being familiar with it e.g. songs, words, paintings, faces, etc. For this reason it is also known as the familiarity principle.
The earliest scientific recordings of the effect came from the work of Fechner (1876), and Titchener (1910), who referred to the “glow of warmth” felt in the presence of something that is familiar. The effect was later thoroughly investigated by Robert Zajonc (1968). In his experiments he tested how subjects responded to made-up words and Chinese characters and found those exposed to these words the most responded the most favourably to them. People tend to develop a liking for something after repeated exposure.
The effect was even found among animals. Two frequencies were played to different groups of chicks while they were still unhatched, and after hatching each set of chicks consistently chose the tone played to it in the pre-natal stage (Zajonc, 2001). The effect typically reaches its peak after 10-20 exposures, and declining thereafter (Bornstein, 1989).
Why is it Important?
Zajonc’s research suggests that ‘choices’ don’t require cognition. Individuals make decisions with little to no cognitive process; liking something is the same as deciding upon it, and therefore we post-rationalize our decisions. Humans have this bias towards preferring things that are familiar as they are likely to be safer than the unknown things we have not heard of.
Just hearing the name of a brand is sufficient for you to think more positively towards it the next time you are exposed to it. There is a caveat though. A review of research suggests that over-exposure can lead to ambivalence so the mere-exposure effect is likely to be of most effect when a company or brand is new or unfamiliar.
Financial traders have been shown to invest in domestic securities because they are familiar with them, despite similar or better alternative offers available in the international market. (Huberman, 2001).
Any academics reading this will likely have fallen victim to the mere exposure effect themselves. Scholars with previous experience of a journal- having published in or reviewed articles for it- will rate the journal higher than those without this exposure (Serenko & Bontis 2011).