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The Mere Exposure Effect in Politics

How mere exposure works in the current political climate.

Key points

  • According to the mere exposure effect, the more we are exposed to something, the more we tend to like it.
  • People are often unaware of the mere exposure effect's influence on them.
  • Constant exposure to a candidate, even if it's largely negative, can have a positive impact.

The mere exposure effect is a simple and widely studied psycholological phenomenon: The more you are exposed to something, the more you tend to like it. And the mere exposure effect works and changes your preferences, even if you are not aware of being exposed. The effect influences your liking of everything from people to songs to colors.

The impact of the mere exposure effect on politics should be obvious, but, surprisingly, not a lot of studies have been conducted on this. The mere exposure of fake news on voting behavior has been documented, but the mere exposure effect works on a much basic level: Mere exposure to images of a politician will, other things being equal, make you like that politician more. It's a scary thought and one with dire consequences. But first, let's see how the mere exposure effect works.

One of the most famous mere exposure experiments, conducted in the late 1960s at the University of Michigan in Robert Zajonc’s lab, was pretty low-tech: Subjects had to wait in the hallway before they could get started. But this was, unbeknownst to them, already part of the test. The experimenters sent grad students down the hallway, certain grad students more often than others. So some grad students walked down the hall only once, some five times, some 15 times, and so on. The subjects who were waiting didn’t have cell phones to distract them; they observed the people around them. And, after their period of waiting was over, they systematically rated higher the appearance of those grad students who had walked by more often.

The mere exposure effect influences our preferences in all domains, including the fine arts, as a famous 2006 experiment from James Cutting’s lab at Cornell University demonstrated. During an introductory vision science lecture, photos of artworks were distributed among the slides. In the middle of a lecture on how vision works, the students suddenly saw, for example, a Renoir painting, with no explanation given. While these images seemed to come up randomly, they were in fact part of a cunning scheme. Some were shown more often than others, and, at the end of the semester, the students were asked to rate the pictures they had seen. The result was striking: They systematically rated those that had appeared more often more highly than the ones that had appeared only once. Moreover, very few of these students reported that they remembered seeing any of the artworks before.

It is hard not to be slightly concerned by these findings. Our preferences, especially for things as subjective as art and music, are very much a part of who we are. We have some control over what kinds of art and music we are exposed to, but not complete control. And it is more and more difficult to spend time in any public space without music. Cafes, shopping malls, elevators: the music you are exposed to in these places leaves its mark on your preferences. If you are a fan of free jazz and you think of yourself as a free jazz person, being exposed to Justin Bieber’s music will nevertheless likely make you like Justin Bieber’s music a little bit more. And you are very often not even aware of this change.

Back to politics. It needs to be noted that the mere exposure effect is not the only thing that determines our political choices. It is not even—by a long shot—the most important such factor. But it does make some difference, especially with low-information voters. And it can help us to explain why familiar faces (like Ronald Reagan) have long had a higher chance of succeeding in politics.

This takes us to the present day. Since the advent of TV ads, mere exposure to politicians has been crucial, but in recent years, the extent of the exposure has increased in a way nobody could have expected. Through social media and memes we are exposed to the images of politicians multiple times more often than ever before. This means that we need to take the mere exposure effect into consideration when surveying the political landscape.

It also means that there are very clear asymmetries sometimes between political rivals in terms of the mere exposure effect. One obvious example is the extreme extent of exposure to the current Republican presidential candidate in the US. While many Democrats (and Democrat-friendly comedians, for example) make a point of delivering constant (and negative) coverage of their opponent, this is likely to have unwanted consequences. The paradoxical way in which the mere exposure effect plays out in this context is that exposing the public to your opponent's faults has a constant positive impact—something political strategists (and comedians) should be aware of.

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