The Mere Exposure Effect

Why We Tend to Like Things That Are Familiar

Mere exposure
Mere Exposure Effect: The more familiar we are with something, the more we like it. Echo / Cultura / Getty Images

It probably comes as no surprise that people tend to feel the most comfortable around things that are familiar. The unknown and unfamiliar pose possible threats, even dangers, but the things that we have been around frequently tend to feel comfortable or at least unsurprising. We might feel safer and less threatened by the things we know.

It’s the reason you always order your favorite dish at certain restaurants.

Rather than taking a chance on an unfamiliar entrée, you stick with your old favorite to avoid possible disappointment.

Psychologists have found, however, that people also tend to like things more the more frequently they are exposed to them. This phenomenon is known as the mere exposure effect or the familiarity principle.

In short, people often develop preferences for things simply because they are more familiar with them. This can involve everything from the latest pop songs on that top 40 station you sometimes listen to or even to people you encounter in your everyday life. The more you hear that song or the more you see that person, the more enjoyable and likable they become.

While the adage might suggest that familiarity breed contempt, the research suggests that familiarity is one of the surest ways to establish interest and even liking for an object or individual.

The Mere Exposure Effect in Real-Life

People generally prefer to be around things they are familiar with, including other people.

This effect can play a role in many aspects of your daily life, from the foods you eat to the stocks in which you choose to invest. It impacts the stores and restaurants you patronize, the products you buy, the stocks you invest in, and even the people you surround yourself with.

The possible problem with this tendency is that it can sometimes lead to less than optimal decisions.

  • Did you invest in those stocks because they were really the best alternative or was it just because you are familiar (and, therefore, more comfortable) with those companies?
  • Are you purchasing products that fulfill your needs, or is it just because they are the things you are the most comfortable with?
  • Is that obnoxious guy at the office really less annoying than he used to be, or have you just gotten used to his antics?
  • You hated that song the first time you heard it on the radio, but suddenly it sounds catchy and you find yourself turning up the volume whenever it plays.
  • New foods often tastes strange or even bad when we first encounter them, but after multiple exposures you find yourself liking or even craving these foods.

Advertising is an area where this concept would undoubtedly play a significant role. Marketers are always eager to get their names and products out in front of the public eye and to, hopefully, gain the trust and business of the consumers they target. In many cases, advertisers attempt to form a positive association with the product they are promoting, often by linking it to a desirable celebrity or some sought-after outcome. But in many cases, merely increasingly exposure to their products and brands can create these positive feelings.

The History of the Mere Exposure Effect

Some of the earliest research on the phenomenon began with the work of psychologist Gustav Fechner during the late 1800s, and Edward B. Titchener noted that people often exhibit feelings of warmth around familiar things. It was a social psychologist named Robert Zajonc who pioneered the study of the mere exposure effect.

In a series of three experiments, Zajonc exposed participants to various stimuli in different frequencies and asked the subjects to rate their overall favorability toward these stimuli.

  • In the first experiment, the participants were exposed to nonsense words.
  • In the second, the stimuli were Chinese-like characters.
  • In the third experiment, yearbook photos were used.

In all three variations, the more participants were exposed to the stimuli, the more favorably they rated them.

Some additional studies by other researchers indicated that repeated exposure to negative stimuli could decrease favorability toward that stimuli. This suggests that it is the initial impression of something, whether good or bad, that is strengthened with repeated exposure. However, further research by Zajonc, Markus, and Wilson suggested that repeated presentations of even a negative stimulus would lead to more positive responses with increased exposure.

It is important to note that mere exposure is not about creating a positive association with a stimulus. Instead, it involves a mere condition, which Zajonc defined as a situation that "just makes the given stimulus accessible to the individual's perception." The mere exposure effect, therefore, involves creating a more favorable attitude toward a stimulus simply by increasing the number of these mere exposure conditions.


Perlman, D., & Oskamp, S. (1971). The effects of picture content and exposure frequency on evaluations of Negroes and whites. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7, 503–514.

Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, Monograph Suppl. No. 2, part 2.

Zajonc, R. B., Markus, H., and Wilson, W. R. (1974). Exposure effects and associative learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 10, 248–263.

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