The mere exposure effect bias: Why people like ideas they have seen before

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What do you need to do to make someone like your idea?

Get them to see it as many times as possible.

One of the most powerful unconscious biases which we all suffer from is called the Mere Exposure Effect.

It essentially says that the more often we see something, the more we will associate it with being positive and like it.

Even if we are not aware of it.

The name comes from the fact that if we are merely exposed to something, it will make us look at it more favourably in the future.

This effect has been shown through numerous research studies, but the most famous was by Robert Zajonc in their 1968 research article Attitudinal effects of mere exposure.

He cites several experiments where people were exposed to things they did not even notice, such as asking people to practice pronouncing nonsense words (such as “jandara” and “mecburi”), pronouncing Turkish words, or just looking at Chinese Text characters for a certain number of attempts. The researchers then asked the participants to guess whether the words (none of which they could understand) meant something good or something bad in the native language.

Remarkably, the more often the participants were shown the word, the more they thought it had a “positive / good” meaning. See Figure 2 from the study here:

mere exposure effect

There mere exposure effect has been seen in other studies, including subjects preferring a taste of juice they had tried more frequently, and that older exposures seemed to be more powerful than newer exposures.

Interestingly, you do not even need to be aware of the stimuli or objects to find them more positive the more often you are exposed to them. One experiment showed that exposure which was so short that it was subliminal had a larger effect than longer exposures.

From an evolutionary perspective, the bias makes sense. We will treat things as more positive if we were exposed to them and they didn’t cause us harm.

So if you want to convince people of the value of your ideas, use the mere exposure effect to your advantage. Get that idea in front of people as frequently as possible.

The more often they are exposed to it, the more likely they are to like it.

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