I was at a kd lang concert last week. She did a mix of songs from her new cd (which I had not heard yet) and older songs that I knew. The crowd reaction was typical. The new songs were beautiful, and people appreciated them. But when old songs started, the crowd really got excited.

That reaction is a great example of the mere exposure effect.

Research by Bob Zajonc (pronounced zy-ons) demonstrated that encountering something makes you familiar with it, and that familiarity makes you like it more than you did before you encountered it.

In the case of the concert that I attended, kd lang's new songs aren't worse than her old ones. But, the old ones are familiar, and so we like them better.

In this post, I want to think about why familiar things might be preferred to unfamiliar ones. In the next post, I'll look at how mere exposure works.

So, why do we like more familiar things better? For songs, it doesn't matter much. Lots of songs are pretty, and if you hear them a few times, you will like them. So, it isn't obvious why familiarity should affect how much you like songs.

The cognitive system uses familiarity as a way to judge that something is relatively safe. Let's think first about what happens when you encounter something unpleasant.

If you are exposed to something unpleasant, then you have a very negative reaction to it. You might feel pain, or get scared by it, or feel disgusted. The cognitive system is very good at storing information about these unpleasant experiences, so the next time you encounter that thing again, you immediately get a signal to avoid it. For example, if you meet a person and have a negative interaction with them, the next time you see them, you will get an unpleasant feeling, that you will use as a signal to avoid them.

If you are exposed to something that is not unpleasant, though, then the cognitive system assumes that it is (reasonably) safe. The next time you encounter it, you will like it much better than you did the first time. That is the cognitive system's way of telling you that it thinks that the item is safe.

This mere exposure effect is how much of advertising works. We are surrounded by ads, and we often do our best to keep from listening to them. So, the messages that the ads are presenting are not likely to have a huge effect on the way we think about the product being advertised. However, just hearing the name of the brand is enough to find the product more attractive the next time we encounter it. So, you do not need to pay much attention to an ad for it to have an effect on your behavior.

To see this in action, go to the store and stand in front of the wall of shampoo, and think about what shampoo you want to buy. Imagine for a moment that you are not interested in buying the shampoo you usually buy. Notice that you are more likely to seriously consider the brands of shampoo that have been advertised. The ones that you have not heard about just seem less attractive.

Finally, I should note that I am not saying it is a bad thing that we prefer things we have heard of to things we have not. There are lots of good reasons why things we have heard of before are likely to be better or safer than things we have not heard of. However, it is worth recognizing that one reason why we may choose one item over another is just because it is familiar.

Be sure to read the following responses to this post by our bloggers:

To know me is to like me II: Accessibility is a reply by Art Markman Ph.D.

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