Can You Make Yourself Like Something?

The role of the "mere exposure effect" in shaping our tastes.

Posted Sep 08, 2018

The mere exposure effect refers to the well-established finding that people evaluate a stimulus (a thing or event) more positively after repeated exposure to that stimulus than novel stimuli. In other words, familiarity leads to liking. Many of the sensory experiences (e.g., coffee or music) with repeated exposure can become increasingly pleasant. However, increased exposure to stimuli may result in habituation or less liking over time.

The work of researcher Robert Zajonk (1923-2008) has demonstrated that repeated exposure to an individual leads to a greater liking for that person without any cognitive awareness. We can love without being aware of it. For instance, if you adopt a baby, your attachment will be just as strong as for a non-adopted child.

What is the power of familiarity that makes people more attractive? One explanation is that increasing familiarity reduces uncertainty because familiar faces have a low-information content. Familiar faces allow us to lower our guard. This explains people’s negative reactions toward immigrants, who appear to be more difficult to process than natives (fear of the unknown).

Another explanation is that repeated exposures can be considered as a form of classical conditioning that can increase liking of stimuli through a process of conditioning. For example, the more often you see a co-worker, the more likable that person appears to be. You will hear people say, “he is growing on me.” We typically feel more warmly toward things we encounter again and again.

However, people misattribute this increased exposure to some positive quality about the stimulus itself. Repeated exposure generates a certain processing fluency (i.e., a measure of how easy it is to think about something) that can result in greater judgments of attraction. Processing of familiar stimuli is faster than processing of unfamiliar stimuli (Reber, et al., 2004). Processing fluency is experienced as pleasant. Albert Einstein is attributed to saying, “If you can’t explain it to a 6-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”  There is a beauty in simplifying.

The bias for what is familiar is the most important factor for explaining differences in liking for things. People tend to like best what is most familiar. For example, the more listeners hear a piece of music, the more they like it (Margulis, 2014).  Major labels know that frequent airplay is the key to successful record sales.

The power of repeated exposure isn’t just limited to music. The mere exposure effect explains the acquisition of liking for spicy food by Mexican children. These children are exposed to spicy foods in the context of meals consumed by adults. The social environments in which chil­dren grow up enable them to develop a sense of how foods should taste. Children are more willing to taste and accept into their diets the foods they have seen others eating. Similarly, children are capable of appreciating new healthy foods if they are exposed often enough (De Cosmi et al., 2017).

In many cases, familiarity initially increases pleasure, but ultimately reduces it. In other words, the relationship between exposure and enjoyment is nonlinear. This relationship reflects the interaction of two opposing desires, the positive learned safety effect on the one hand, and an aversion to boredom on the other hand.

It is also possible that familiarity breeds contempt (Noton, et al., 2007). In the context of a relationship, more information about others leads, on average, to less liking. At first acquaintance, individuals read into others what they wish and find evidence of similarity, leading to liking. Over time, however, as evidence of dissimilarity is uncovered, the liking decreases. In short, ambiguity (lacking information about another) leads to liking, whereas familiarity can breed contempt.

Experts say that “playing hard to get” is a most effective strategy for attracting a partner, especially in the context of long-term love (or the marital) in which a person wishes to be sure of their partner’s commitment. A “hard to get” player likes to appear busy, create intrigue and keep the suitors guessing. As Proust noted, “The best way to make oneself sought after is to be hard to find.”

References

De Cosmi V, Scaglioni S, Agostoni C. (2017)  Early Taste Experiences and Later Food Choices. Nutrients 4;9(2).

Margulis Elizabeth (2014).  On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind (Oxford University Press.

Norton MI, Frost JH, Ariely D (2007), Less is more: the lure of ambiguity, or why familiarity breeds contempt. J Pers Soc Psychol;92(1):97-105.

Reber, R., Schwarz, N. & Winkielman, P. (2004). Processing fluency and aesthetic pleasure: Is beauty in the perceiver’s processing experience? Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8, 364-382.

Zajonc RB (2001). Mere Exposure: A Gateway to the Subliminal. Current Directions in Psychological Science.10(6):224–228.