Mere Exposure Effect: Why Something Familiar Isn’t Always Better

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The mere exposure effect is a psychological term that says humans prefer things that are familiar to them. Should you get out of your comfort zone?

Have you ever watched “your” series with a friend? After convincing them how awesome it is, you are simply shocked when they think that the acting is bad, the scenery is unrealistic, or that the writing is horrible.

If you can think back to the first time that you watched it, you may have thought all those things. But, you decided to give it another try, and then another, and then another. By the time you introduced it to your friend, you were already familiar and invested. You had the mere exposure effect.

Like trying smoking or alcohol, sometimes things that may, or may not, be pleasurable become preferable simply because you are exposed and familiar to them. A psychological theory, it explains why people parent their children the way that they were parented, even when they think their parents were awful. [Read: 5 powerful steps to break out of your comfort zone]

It explains why we do habitual things that we know aren’t good for us, or even why we stay in faltering relationships. The mere exposure effect makes things feel “good” even if they may not be.

The history behind the mere exposure effect

First noted as a phenomenon as far back as the 1800s, the mere exposure effect theory guides a lot of the behaviors and decisions that we make in our daily lives without us being aware at all.

What feels familiar is preferable to something that is unpredictable, or when we aren’t sure how things will turn out. Even if something isn’t the “greatest,” it is better than the fear of the unknown, which is why we largely guide what we do by what we know from previous exposure or experience.

The mere exposure effect takes two psychological functions

In technical terms, the mere exposure effect exists because of the interplay between two psychological functions. First, we prefer things that are familiar because we can process them quicker, and they are easier for us to understand.

If there is one thing that we know about human nature, it is that we typically choose those things that are easy over those which require more effort. [Read: 14 signs you’re getting too comfortable with each other]

Second, because we are better able to process things that are familiar to us, we have a greater likelihood that we know how to maneuver them for a positive effect versus a negative one. Sounding way more complex than need be, we prefer things that we find familiar and don’t have to figure out. We respond to them better, which leads to a better emotional or physical outcome.

The biggest problem with the mere exposure effect is that it is pretty resilient to change unless you make a conscious and real effort to examine your behaviors, your beliefs about those behaviors, and how you react in a concrete and systematic way to override them. Only through repetition and awareness are humans capable of overcoming the preference of the mere exposure effect.

Advertisers love the mere exposure effect

Nowhere is the mere exposure effect more apparent than in the marketing world. The images that we see on a continual basis become familiar to us, and therefore, they become comfortable and desirable. That is why although it is completely unnatural for most women to be a perfect size 2 when six feet tall, because it is what we see repetitively, we think it is something to aspire to because it is our experience.

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