Familiarity breeds affection

Why is it that you can look at something for months and months and have no discernible affection towards it, and then one day – you love it! You need to buy it and own it! It needs to be in your life! All of a sudden your attitude is totally transformed. It all seems a bit suspiciously impulsive, and it’s hardly the mentality of the thoughtful, circumspect consumer that many people would like to be. But it does happen from time to time, and it leads one to wonder – what flips the switch? Why do feelings of relative indifference transform into sudden admiration and a compulsion for ownership of the desired object? It might have something to do with a cognitive bias called the mere-exposure effect.

The mere-exposure effect describes how people tend to have a more favourable view of things they are familiar with; hence, merely being exposed to something can make you like it more than things that you haven’t been exposed to. Plenty of research over the decades has established it as a robust psychological phenomenon that is evident in a wide variety of contexts. For example, in one experiment, participants who weren’t familiar with Chinese characters were shown a series of them and asked to rate them. In the exposure stage, one group of participants was shown the same 5 characters five times each, and another group of participants was shown 25 different characters once each. In the testing stage that followed, all participants were shown a series of images – including a mix of characters they had just seen in the exposure stage and characters they hadn’t seen in the exposure stage – and were asked how much they liked each one. The liking ratings for characters the participants had seen before was higher than the ratings for the characters they hadn’t seen before. Also, the liking ratings were higher in the group who had seen the same 5 characters five times (so the characters felt more familiar) than in the group that had only seen 25 different characters. So the more you see something, the more it feels familiar and the more you like it. The group that saw the same 5 characters five times each also reported feeling happier after the experiment than the group that saw 25 different characters – evidence that simply creating feelings of familiarity can have a positive effect on your mood.

The twist here is that the participants weren’t even consciously aware of the characters they had seen in the exposure stage. Each character was flashed up for just 5 milliseconds – way too fast for anyone to consciously see. So during the subsequent testing stage, when the characters were flashed up for 1 second each and participants rated how much they liked each character, the participants had no idea which characters they had or hadn’t seen just before. They couldn’t recognise any of the characters as being familiar. Despite that, their brains had still performed basic visual processing of the characters, and subsequently the characters that participants had been exposed to during the exposure stage somehow implicitly felt more familiar and were consequently more greatly liked.

This means that even things that fly under your radar are being processed by your brain, and the more you see something, the more you might end up liking it, even if you’re not sure why. Of course, this isn’t true of absolutely everything – we don’t like everything we’re repeatedly exposed to, and sometimes being exposed to something too much is a bad thing because it creates too many associations and it all gets a bit confusing. But the mere exposure effect could have some sort of influence in driving us to like and desire things we might have otherwise been quite indifferent to.

3 Thoughts on “Familiarity breeds affection

  1. YES. This is what causes me to adopt fashion trends after they’ve had their “moment”. I tell myself that I don’t like to hop on the bandwagon and be a sheep like everyone else, but then inevitably I find myself wearing something similar months later. It’s usually a toned down version of whatever extreme is the latest craze.

  2. Oh god, you’re writings are brilliant. Why have I never seen your blog before? And I wonder about the same thing all the time. “What flips the switch”? Maybe because someone whose style I adore wears a certain (which I never really paid attention to) in a dashing way that kindles a new desperate love affair to it. I dunno.

  3. I have the same exact issue as Helena (and you, it sounds like). When I first noticed it, it was with that Alexander Wang Rocco bag. The first time I saw it, and many subsequent times afterward, I thought “Pffft! This thing is terrible. Everybody else likes it, but not me. Oh no! I don’t like it at all.”

    Then one day, something turned the corner (actually, it was seeing it dangling nonchalantly on someone’s shoulder with a shoulder strap), and I began to think, “Hmmmmm, that’s really nice.”

    Not long after that I owned one.
    It was heavy.
    I got tired of carrying it, although it was somewhat aesthetically pleasing.
    Fortunately, there are plenty other Rocco acolytes out there, and I was able to resell it.
    Lesson learned? I hope so, but privately doubt it.

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