Sapient Nature

Bite-sized insights on the human condition.

Familiarity Breeds Enjoyment

Why forced familiarity with novel experiences enhances enjoyment in life.

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My first meal in the US was at Taco Bell
When I first landed in the United States from India in 1994 to start my PhD, I was taken by my hosts, straight from the airport, to a Taco Bell for dinner. (My hosts were senior Indian students at the same university.) Being vegetarian, I ordered the bean burrito and the seven-layer burrito. I remember hating the meal, but out of politeness for my hosts, I managed to gulp it down with the help of lots of water. I wondered how my hosts could consume the despicable stuff. Over time, however, I learned to not just tolerate the bean and the seven-layer burritos, but to actually enjoy them. In fact, there are times now when I actually crave them!

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How did this transition happen? How did I grow from a burrito hater to a burrito lover? The answer to this question can unlock the secret to one of the simplest and most effective ways of enhancing enjoyment from life.

To understand how, consider something known as the mere exposure effect. In an early demonstration of this effect, participants in an experiment were exposed to a set of alphabets from the Japanese language. As most people know, Japanese alphabets look like drawings or pictures and are called ideograms. In the experiment, the duration of exposure to each ideogram was deliberately kept very short--as low as 30 milliseconds, or about one-thirtieth a second--in some experiments. At such short durations of exposure--known as subliminal exposure--people cannot register the stimuli and hence, participants in the experiment were not expected to recall seeing the ideograms. The question, nevertheless: Would the participants develop greater liking for the ideograms to which they had been previously exposed?

Japanese alphabets
The answer, it turned out, was yes. When participants were shown two sets of alphabets, one to which they had been previously exposed and another to which they hadn't, participants reported greater liking for the former--even though they couldn't recall seeing them! These results have been replicated numerous times and across a variety of types of stimuli, so they are robust. What the mere exposure results show is that people develop a liking towards stimuli that are familiar. So, even though familiarity can sometimes breed contempt, it seems that it more often breeds liking.

But, why are familiar things more likeable?

Because familiar things--food, music, activities, surroundings, etc.--make us feel comfortable. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that familiarity breeds liking. Generally speaking, things that are familiar are likely to be safer than things that are not. If something is familiar, we have clearly survived exposure to it, and our brain, recognizing this, steers us towards it. Thus, one could say that we are hardwired to feel that the "known devil is better than the unknown angel."

The mere exposure results are fascinating, but even more fascinating is how most of us take little or no advantage of this tendency for enhancing our enjoyment in life.

Each of us can literally double or triple the amount of enjoyment we derive from life by doubling or tripling the stimuli to which we familiarize ourselves. Thus, for example, compared to a person who can only enjoy Indian food, someone who can enjoy Indian, Italian, and Mexican food will naturally derive more enjoyment from life. Similarly, compared to someone who only enjoys rock music, one who also enjoys classical, jazz and bluegrass music will derive more enjoyment from life. In short, the door to greater enjoyment is as simple as gaining mere exposure to new stimuli. And yet, most of us restrict ourselves to only certain kinds of food, certain kinds of music, or certain kinds of world-views.

Why can't someone who is brought up in a particular culture enjoy or learn to appreciate another tradition or culture?

Most people do not like beer the first time they have it
There are two reasons for this. First, because we are programmed to initially dislike unfamiliar stimuli, we take this initial negative reaction toward the stimuli as our true--and stable--reactions toward them. In other words, we treat our initial dislike for unfamiliar food, music, or viewpoints as if they were our permanent feelings toward them. This is because we don't have good intuitions about the effect that familiarity has on our liking for new stimuli, and we easily forget how we previously felt toward the same stimuli. Most of us hated most vegetables growing up, but we can't remember that now. (Most of us hate the taste of beer when we first consume it!) But over time, and with repeated exposure to them, we grow to like them. The effect of familiarity on liking is thus slow, but reliable.

Once we recognize this truth about the link between familiarity and liking, namely, that it takes several exposures to develop a liking towards unfamiliar stimuli, we can make it a deliberate strategy to overlook the initial negative reaction toward new stimuli. 

The second reason why we don't actively seek exposure to new and unfamiliar stimuli has to do with our ego, and this is a much more difficult obstacle to overcome. To a person who grew up eating only Indian food, it is a matter of pride to put down other types of food. Likewise, to a hardcore classic rock fan, even the thought of listening to hip-hop--let alone praising it--would be tantamount to committing treason. And when it comes to religious beliefs and tenets, the involvement of the ego, and thus, the reluctance to consider foreign viewpoints, is even greater.

Thus, the major obstacle to deriving greater enjoyment from life is an internal one. The more we let ego get out of our way, the more we will enjoy life. It's as simple as that. But overcoming the ego is, as the saying goes, simple in concept but difficult in practice. Nevertheless, it can be done, and to someone who is sufficiently motivated, I make these suggestions.

First, start telling yourself and the others around you that one of your most defining qualities is open-mindedness. The mere act of telling yourself that you are open-minded will force you to act in an open-minded fashion. Remember, and fully expect, that your initial reaction to new and unfamiliar experiences is likely to be negative. But tell yourself that, even though you don't consciously recognize it, your sub-conscious is growing to like the unfamiliar experiences with each exposure.

Second, to help fast-forward the liking of unfamiliar experiences, approach new experiences with a sense of respect and wonder. For instance, if you have never heard Jazz before, learn a little about the stalwarts of this genre before you sample a piece. Get to know about the roots of Jazz, and how it spawned other types of music. Gaining conceptual knowledge will have a multiplicative effect on the sensory enjoyment you derive from the activity.  

Third, recognize that you improve your chances of developing a liking toward a new experience if that experience has at least some familiar elements in it. Thus, for example, a person who is already familiar with Indian food will likely find it easier to develop a liking for Thai food, rather than, say, Japanese food. Thus, Thai food may be considered a "bridge" between Indian and Japanese food, and it is important to explicitly incorporate these types of bridges as you expand your experiential and conceptual horizons. Once you develop a liking for Thai food, you will be better positioned to develop a liking for Japanese food.

And finally, make traveling to new places a priority. Why traveling? Because, when you travel, you are forced to expose yourself to new experiences. This is especially true if you get to travel to a totally new country or culture. When you are deep in Italy or Mongolia, you can't easily come across a McDonalds. Although you may dislike the discomfort that you feel in the moment, the forced exposure to new stimuli and experiences will enrich your life in ways that you can't foresee in the moment.

To me, the biggest benefit I derived from my experience of moving to the US and from traveling to other countries--a benefit that I value more than getting an academic degree--is the expanded enjoyment-horizon that I have developed over the years. I am just at home eating a bean burrito as I am eating a masala dosa, and derive as much enjoyment from scuba diving and skiing as I do from playing Cricket, and this makes my life so much more enjoyable that it would otherwise have been.

Interested in these topics? Go here.

Raj Raghunathan, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor affiliated with the Department of Marketing at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business.


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