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Mere Exposure Effect: Why Something Familiar Isn’t Always Better

The mere exposure effect is a psychological term that says humans prefer things that are familiar to them. Should you get out of your comfort zone?

Mere Exposure Effect

Have you ever watched “your” series with a friend? After convincing them how awesome it is, you are simply shocked when they think that the acting is bad, the scenery is unrealistic, or that the writing is horrible.

If you can think back to the first time that you watched it, you may have thought all those things. But, you decided to give it another try, and then another, and then another. By the time you introduced it to your friend, you were already familiar and invested. You had the mere exposure effect.

Like trying smoking or alcohol, sometimes things that may, or may not, be pleasurable become preferable simply because you are exposed and familiar to them. A psychological theory, it explains why people parent their children the way that they were parented, even when they think their parents were awful. [Read: 5 powerful steps to break out of your comfort zone]

It explains why we do habitual things that we know aren’t good for us, or even why we stay in faltering relationships. The mere exposure effect makes things feel “good” even if they may not be.

The history behind the mere exposure effect

First noted as a phenomenon as far back as the 1800s, the mere exposure effect theory guides a lot of the behaviors and decisions that we make in our daily lives without us being aware at all.

What feels familiar is preferable to something that is unpredictable, or when we aren’t sure how things will turn out. Even if something isn’t the “greatest,” it is better than the fear of the unknown, which is why we largely guide what we do by what we know from previous exposure or experience.

The mere exposure effect takes two psychological functions

In technical terms, the mere exposure effect exists because of the interplay between two psychological functions. First, we prefer things that are familiar because we can process them quicker, and they are easier for us to understand.

If there is one thing that we know about human nature, it is that we typically choose those things that are easy over those which require more effort. [Read: 14 signs you’re getting too comfortable with each other]

Second, because we are better able to process things that are familiar to us, we have a greater likelihood that we know how to maneuver them for a positive effect versus a negative one. Sounding way more complex than need be, we prefer things that we find familiar and don’t have to figure out. We respond to them better, which leads to a better emotional or physical outcome.

The biggest problem with the mere exposure effect is that it is pretty resilient to change unless you make a conscious and real effort to examine your behaviors, your beliefs about those behaviors, and how you react in a concrete and systematic way to override them. Only through repetition and awareness are humans capable of overcoming the preference of the mere exposure effect.

Advertisers love the mere exposure effect

Nowhere is the mere exposure effect more apparent than in the marketing world. The images that we see on a continual basis become familiar to us, and therefore, they become comfortable and desirable. That is why although it is completely unnatural for most women to be a perfect size 2 when six feet tall, because it is what we see repetitively, we think it is something to aspire to because it is our experience.

Marketers know that by bombarding us with images, logos, or brand designs, we will become familiar with them. Once we become familiar, we form a bond, and that leads to something called “brand loyalty.” [Read: Sex sells so well – The use of sex and lust through the ages]

A pretty work-specific term, it means that once you feel invested and familiar with one brand over another, you are likely to choose it, and even pay more for it, if alternatives are available. After all, who wants to take a chance to buy generic labeled green beans when we are all so comfortable with the Jolly Green Giant?

How the mere exposure effect guides decision-making

Other areas that are highly guided by the mere exposure effect is decision-making. Have you ever wondered why you think that a Volvo is the safest and best car, even if statistics prove you differently?

You probably grew up with parents who were very set on the car… you drove Volvos growing up and were given one on your 16th birthday because it was “safe.” Those types of relationships and mere exposure experiences are hard to override even when presented with contrary information.

The only way to overcome the mere exposure effect is to question your thinking and take the time to dissect why you feel the way you do before you react. If you think that you are with the greatest guy in the world, even if everyone else disagrees, you have to stop and ask yourself if everyone else is wrong.

Or, could it be that the relationship has become familiar, and, therefore, less scary or risk-taking than going out on your own or trying something new. [Read: 15 reasons why you’re bored with your relationship]

5 steps to challenging the mere exposure effect

They may take some real thought and be arduous, but learning to challenge your own belief systems to find if they are based in reality *or what you have been exposed to repeatedly* is the best way to make good decisions.

It also helps not to stay stuck in something because the unfamiliar and unknown are scarier. Because you could excel instead of succumbing to mediocrity. Learning to think outside of what feels comfortable is an excellent way to find your genuine self.

Ask yourself these five critical questions

#1 Why do I think the way that I do? It is important to examine why you believe the things you do. Did you come to a conclusion on your own? Or, do you just know what you have been told? Taking the time to rationally think through why you believe the way you do may have you questioning all that you thought you knew. [Read: How to stop being manipulated in a relationship]

#2 Do I have real evidence for my beliefs, or have they been handed down or has someone convinced me of them? Do you have CONCRETE evidence that something is real and true, or is it just an accepted group or personal thought?

#3 What are all the other options? Are there other alternatives to a problem that you haven’t considered because you are more comfortable staying with the predictable? There are likely many other scenarios that you can conjure up if you take the time to consider that you don’t have to do what you always do, or what feels “natural” just because it is easy.

#4 What are the pros and cons of staying with the status quo or trying something new? Making a real list of the good and bad that can come from any decision means that you are re-evaluating and taking the time to think about something instead of just going with the familiar status quo.

The best way to challenge a thought is to list all the things that are positive and all the things that are negative, and then weigh the results. [Read: 20 ingenious ways to keep a relationship exciting]

#5 Am I okay with feeling uncomfortable? There are some times when it is okay to put some insecurity in, and then others where familiarity may be a good guide. The difficulty comes in deciding when things are worth stepping outside of your comfort zone, and when they are not. That depends on what you stand to lose, how much you want something, and whether it is worth your time or effort or not.

We make thousands, if not millions, of decisions on a daily basis. The mere exposure effect is both a blessing and a curse. Likely created for evolutionary reasons, sometimes going with the safe, the predictable, and the stable, is the best way to guide a decision.

There are times, however, when you should challenge yourself to be the best you. You have to put your familiarity aside and try something that may not feel safe. But, after a while, it will be just as familiar as the other things in your life and may help you to be more successful.

[Read: 16 things you need to give up to have a happier life]

Just because something is familiar, that does not mean it is the best thing for you or the right thing to do. Fight against the mere exposure effect is sometimes necessary to reach new personal heights.

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Julie_Keating
Julie Keating

A writer isn’t born, but created out of experiences. No lack of subject matter, my life reads more like fiction than anything that could have been imagined...

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