The mere exposure effect explained


Kevin Mangelschots

Ever heard a song on the radio that you hated at first, but grew on you over time and that you utterly came to love and enjoy in the end?

Chances are you’ve experienced the mere exposure effect, aka, the familiarity principle. It is a form of cognitive bias, just as the sunk cost fallacy is.

It depicts that we often like the things we’re familiar with. And this is typically achieved by regular exposure to that very thing we’ve eventually come to enjoy.

Without further ado, let us delve deeper into the topic.

What is the mere exposure effect?

A person holding a question mark in front of their face.

The mere-exposure effect, also commonly called the familiarity principle in social psychology, is a psychological phenomenon. It describes that people tend to develop a preference for the things they are familiar with. This can often be accomplished due to repeated positive exposure at regular intervals.

This effect has been proven in many things such as words, paintings, attraction, and figures. In terms of attraction, the more we see the same person, the more we tend to like that person.

It has been explained and proven by a two-factor theory that hypothesizes that repeated exposure expands perceptual fluency. This also confirms that perceptual learning and autobiographical memory are indeed positively affected by perceptual fluency.

It theorizes that repeated exposure to a particular stimulus increases our perceptual fluency. Perceptual fluency in turn can be described as the ease with which a stimulus can be processed. This perceptual fluency will then give a positive attribution to that stimulus.

Proving the mere exposure effect/familiarity principle

The word “example” written in red letters on a white background.

Mere exposure effect example

One of the most well-known examples and applications of the mere exposure effect and perceptual fluency is advertising. The more we see one particular sales product, the more likely we are to buy it eventually.

Not only that, but the familiarity principle also heavily influences almost all the decisions we make in life.

For example, babies tend to smile more at people who are familiar to them. We are also more likely to do things that are familiar to us, rather than going out of our comfort zone to do things we’ve never done before.

Another example of the mere-exposure effect is that we are more likely to enjoy a song we’ve heard multiple times before than a new song that we have never heard before.

A final example could be that when a couple goes to a restaurant, they’re more likely to order food they already know and have already eaten multiple times before.

The mere exposure effect and our comfort zone

Image of a circle with the sentence “where the magic happens” written in it and another smaller circle with the sentence “your comfort zone” written beneath it.

This also explains, at least partly, why a lot of people are so deadly afraid of the unknown or even of change. It is proven that people like what is familiar (or what feels familiar) and that what is known to them. This is illustrated by the mere-exposure effect.

We naturally gravitate towards what is known and feels safe to us. We tend to stay in our lane, doing the things we know and oftentimes enjoy. Although we know that new experiences can be fun, interesting, and a chance to learn new things, we often don’t attempt what’s unfamiliar to us out of fear and because we are not acquainted with those new experiences.

At the same time, while this theory explains why we tend to shy away from the unknown and what we might fear, it is also that same concept that might cure and safe us from that fear.

The quote, “fear is an opportunity. It is fuel for courage to transform us into a finer human being” written in white letters on a black background.

By repeated, gradual exposure to that very thing, we are afraid of, we learn to become braver and to get less afraid because we become accustomed to that particular thing.

For example, someone who is afraid of elevators can become less afraid by gradual exposure therapy. Depending on the severity of the fear, one might start by simply looking at a picture of an elevator, then by watching an elevator in real life from 5 5-meter distance, next from a one-meter distance, then go inside it without taking the elevator, and finally taking the elevator.

Of course, multiple different treatment plans exist, and this simply serves as a possible example of an exposure therapy plan that can help to cure a phobia or anxiety.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Examples of the mere exposure effect in advertising

An example of the mere exposure effect in advertising is when we see an advertisement, also called an ad, that’s seemingly too brief to be truly noticeable.

But unbeknownst to us, even that short interaction we get with the people, clothes, and products being displayed on the spot, will make us take an increased liking and warmth towards the people, brand, and products displayed.

For example, let’s say that a brand wishes to sell one particular kind of pants. Even though we might not like the pants, or even the people in the spot not that much at first, over time, we’ll get used to and will come to see those pants we disliked at first as favorable.

Of course, this all happens on a subconscious level, which means we’re not aware of the fact that all those different factors are at play at all.

“These fleeting, repeated encounters can nonetheless create a warmth toward the brands,” Grimes said, which is “factored into consumer judgments and behavior down the line.”[1]

Examples of the mere exposure effect in marketing

Image of a man pushing the play button of a digital marketing fram.

The mere exposure in marketing kicks in when consumers have a penchant for something due to the simple fact that they are familiar with it.

Take the Coca-Cola brand for instance.

Think about all the spots displayed with the now extremely popular, well-known red coke can. At one point in time, this brand was unknown. But now, everyone automatically associates the red can and bottle with the brand Coca-Cola. We’ve learned to associate that particular product with that specific brand.

Over time, due to repeated positive exposures, we’ve come to see the product as favorable.

That brand and many others accomplished those feats by applying the mere exposure effects by:

  1. Using consistent calls to action (CTAs)

    Call to action improves the processing efficacy on the page and increases our favorable feelings towards that brand.

  2. Establishing a strong brand name

    A strong brand name is an absolute necessity for visitors and customers to become familiar with the brand.

  3. Making the brand visible in the top half of the front page of a broadsheet newspaper

    This way, the visitors and potential customers know exactly where they are when they arrive at your page. When people notice a brand they’re familiar with, they’re much more likely to rate it favorably, which will help reduce bounce rates on one’s website.

Final take

Image of the word, “conclusions” written on a black backboard with white chalk.

The familiarity principle exists, and thus, we should use it for our gain and to optimize our lives.

It can affect many aspects of our lives. Such as our love life, how popular we are, how much money we earn, and many more. Let’s say it can positively change how we, our product, or our brand are perceived.

So next time, don’t underestimate the power that repeated disclosure at regular intervals holds. Even though we might not be aware of it a lot of the time, it still holds some considerable power over our decisions.