What Is The Mere Exposure Effect?

Updated December 29, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The mere exposure effect, sometimes referred to as the familiarity principle, can influence our feelings about practically anything, for better or worse. The APA defines it as:

“The finding that individuals show an increased preference (or liking) for a stimulus as a consequence of repeated exposure to that stimulus. This effect is most likely to occur when there is no preexisting negative attitude toward the stimulus object, and it tends to be strongest when the person is not consciously aware of the stimulus presentations.”

To better understand the mere exposure effect, it is helpful to consider the impact it has. For example, when you hear a song on the radio for the first time, you may dislike it. But after you have heard it many times, you begin to like it. After a while, you might even prefer the song to others you liked initially. 

Because you became increasingly aware of the tune, lyrics, etc., you began to believe you were fond of the song, despite your initial aversion. A key characteristic of the mere exposure effect is that people begin to like something more without any substantive reason other than their familiarity with it.

Anxiety Can Make Us Question Our Judgement

Discovery Of The Effect

The mere exposure effect was initially coined by Polish-American social psychologist Robert Zajonc. Zajonc experimented with the concept by showing various representations of things such as foreign words, faces of strangers, and Chinese characters to participants in a study. Some of the participants had seen these once before, others many times, while some were viewing them for the first time.

After they were presented, Zajonc asked them to rate the images' levels of pleasantness. Across the board, the participants most liked images that were the most familiar. The studies showed that this occurs when people are stimulated by images, colors, people, etc., and have a higher favorability toward the item when it has previously stimulated them.

Why Is The Mere Exposure Effect Important?

The mere exposure effect is important for many reasons, largely based on the context in which it appears. It can be used in clinical settings to help people with phobias become more comfortable with things of which they are irrationally afraid. It helps us get along with people that we are required to see in our lives. It may even help us to understand and appreciate elements of different cultures.

Mere Exposure In Advertising

One of the most powerful functions of the mere exposure effect is in advertising. By bombarding consumers with advertisements in which a company's logo is presented, buyers begin to trust the brand. This occurs even though they have learned nothing new or substantive about it but have simply become accustomed to hearing the name often, which instills an idea that it must be good and trustworthy.

While studies show the above to be true, there is also an indication that too much exposure in advertising leads to ambivalence among customers. Most researchers agree that exposure in advertising is most effective when a product or brand is new, but once people are mildly familiar with it, increasing exposure does not often result in increased favorability. However, this still can speak to the power of the mere exposure effect, as getting to a level of favorability creates trust in the consumer. 

Mere Exposure In Decision Making

According to the mere exposure effect, people make a range of decisions because they are more familiar with one of the choices, despite evidence that an alternative might be better.

For example, on Wall Street, many traders invest more in domestic companies due to more exposure, even if certain international companies are offering far higher numbers. When deciding what movie to watch, many will read through summaries and find a film that sounds excellent, but still choose the one they are not as interested in but have heard the name of more often.

Anxiety Can Make Us Question Our Judgement

There are millions of examples of how people make decisions simply by choosing the option they feel more comfortable with due to a false sense of understanding that comes from a baseline level of awareness.

Mere Exposure In Interpersonal Relationships

Because the mere exposure effect means that we like what we see more often, it means that we’re more likely to get along with people that we see more regularly. This could help to explain why we are more likely to get along with people that we meet at work or school than people that we meet in other circumstances.

If you walk by someone every single day, you may begin to feel as if you know them and you can trust them. This is due to your frequent exposure to them alone, not because you know anything about them that would substantiate these beliefs. Some might even feel shocked if they hear someone whom they are familiar with has done something wrong, although they know nothing about the person. In effect, the person is still a stranger, but the mere exposure phenomena create a sense of trust, even a potential bond. 

In familial relationships, will often begin to trust those who are "around" more often than those who aren't, despite their intrinsic character. When people enter into potential romantic situations, they will usually prefer those whom they have seen more often, even if there is a prospective partner who is funnier, more physically attractive, and more likable. This is the case even when they have not directly spent time together but could simply pass each other in the halls or be in the same classes.

Subliminal Exposure

While the mere exposure effect itself is very powerful, it can be even more so when administered subliminally. What this means is that someone can still favor something they are familiar with, even if they have not been exposed to it consciously. 

In a 1980 study published in Science magazine by William Raft Kunst-Wilson and R.B. Zajonc found that “Animal and human subjects readily develop strong preferences for objects that have become familiar through repeated exposures. Experimental evidence is presented that these preferences can develop even when the exposures are so degraded that recognition is precluded.”

Research also suggests that due to the link between mere exposure and repetition priming, we are very impressionable to the effects of mere exposure bias while we sleep as well. 

Takeaway

Some people (many of them celebrities) have capitalized on using the mere exposure effect to endear themselves to us for centuries. That influence over us, plus the manipulation of our judgment by advertisers, society, and more, can make us sometimes ponder if we are in charge of our own choices at all. 

But if you feel insecure in your judgment, or your ability to make decisions because of forces beyond everyday outside influences, it may be a symptom of a larger psychological issue like anxiety or depression. If you suspect this may be the case, speaking with a mental health professional can help you understand those symptoms and determine a course of action for moving past them.

Online therapy platforms like BetterHelp have grown in popularity over the past few years, pairing people with vetted, experienced therapists who can help diagnose and treat disorders like anxiety, depression, trauma, and more. 

With online therapy, you can connect with a trained expert through phone calls, live messaging, text, and video conferences. This flexibility is helpful if you are unsure about seeing someone in person or if such resources are not available where you are. Additionally, it is very easy to schedule sessions around your availability. 

Counselor Reviews

Here are a few testimonials from people who have reached out to BetterHelp with similar issues:

“This was my first time trying therapy, and with Mike, I’ve gained so much clarity in more than one area of my life! He is a deep listener with a patient demeanor that puts me at ease to tell. He often challenged me to think critically about my emotions, what I hoped to accomplish when making decisions, and the realistic options I had to get there - these methods have helped me with thinking through problems beyond our sessions!”

“Yolanda does a great job of pinpointing what my issue is and asking questions that get me reflecting on the deeper problem. She is encouraging and supportive, and also gives me concrete ways to move forward and resolve indecision. I have really appreciated the sense of peace and perspective that she's given me in our short time together.”

For additional help & support with your concerns

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started