The Mere Exposure Effect

mereexposure1You have probably had the experience of hearing a new song and not caring for it much at first, but after hearing it a number of times, you find that you really do enjoy the song and catch yourself humming it when you least expect to.

This phenomenon is one example of the mere exposure effect. Basically, the more you see or hear something, you more you like it. In other words, we tend to like things more when they’re familiar to us (even if they’re familiar for a goofy reason). In the original demonstration of this effect, Robert Zajonc showed his participants images that they didn’t already have extreme reactions to (e.g., foreign words, Chinese characters, or faces of strangers).

These participants were asked to just rate how pleasant the images were. Now, some of the participants were seeing the image for the first time when they rated it, but other participants had already seen the image before. Some people had seen it just one time, some people had seen it a few times, and some people had seen it as many as 25 times. The results were clear: the more they had already been exposed to the image, the more they said they liked it. Over the years, psychologists have shown that this happens for a range of stimuli, including paintings, colors, flavors, and geometric figures. The more times people had been exposed to the stimulus, the more they ended up liking it.

Social Mere Exposure

university-105709_640thinOne of my favorite demonstrations of this effect comes from a 1992 study. The researchers arranged for four different women (of similar appearance) to attend a college class a certain number of times throughout the semester. One of these women didn’t actually attend at all, one attended five times, one attended ten times, and the last woman attended fifteen times. These women didn’t interact with the students at all; they just sat in on the lecture.

At the end of the semester, the students in the class saw pictures of each of the women and rated them on several scales like physical attractiveness. Despite never having interacted with these women, the students showed a clear mere exposure effect. That is, they evaluated the woman who they had seen 15 times much more positively than the woman they hadn’t seen at all.[1]  And the women who had shown up 5 and 10 times were somewhere in the middle.

The Limits of Mere Exposure

An analysis of a ton of mere exposure studies showed that repeated exposure tends to be more effective when there is a delay between seeing the word or picture and the ratings of them, which means it helps to give the multiple exposures time to settle in. In some cases, there was still an effect of the repeated exposure two weeks later!

It also seems to be the case the mere exposure effect doesn’t work as strongly with children because kids tend to prefer new and things instead of things that have become familiar.

Subliminal Exposure

What’s super interesting is that the mere exposure effect is even stronger when the words or pictures are repeatedly presented subliminallyAs you’ve already learned so far, simply being exposed to something for a while fosters greater liking for whatever has been presented, but when researchers deliberately expose people to a stimulus on a subconscious level, the exposure still fosters greater liking. That is, even if you have no awareness that you’ve seen something a bunch of times before, you still end up liking it more.

In one experiment, researchers conducted three slightly different versions of the same experiment. In the first version, people were doing an activity on a computer, and a photo of a person (let’s call him “Fred”) was presented 5 times at a speed of just 4 milliseconds (i.e., people don’t notice that they saw a photo). In the second version, everything was the same except the photo that was quickly presented was of a different person (let’s call him “Dave”). In the third version, everything seemed the same except there were no photos shown to the participants—quickly or not.

The results reveal the power of subliminal exposure. People tended to like a person more if they had seen his face a few times before—even if they were flashed so quickly that they couldn’t even notice the face on the screen. Even more, if these people then had a conversation with the person whose face they had been subliminally exposed to, their interactions went more smoothly than if they hadn’t been exposed to that person’s face before. That is, when people actually met Fred, they liked him more if they had seen his face flash un-noticeably in the earlier activity (compared to people who saw Dave’s face or no faces in the earlier activity).

A Mere Summary

Taken together, we can see a clear case of subliminal influence. As far as the “mere exposure effect” goes, subliminally exposing people to words or pictures can have a surprisingly profound effect on how much they end up liking the words or pictures. It’s as though we can become familiar with something even if we have no awareness of seeing it before.

So what do you do with this information? Well I often suggest that it’s helpful to stay socially active if you want to form bonds with people. You don’t have to be the life of the party or anything, but simply making a point to be around could lead those around you to have a more positive attitude toward you since you’ve become more familiar. Other research (which I’ve covered on the blog before) has even shown the power of mere exposure in making you a more influential person.

In a more marketing-oriented domain, this is why companies pay tons of money to put their logo on stuff. It might seem crazy–am I really going to buy “Pepsi” more if their logo is printed on my baseball tickets? Well, when I’m at the store trying to decide which brand to buy, will I go with the logo that feels more familiar or the one that’s less familiar? The gentle cunning of mere exposure wins again!


This article on mere exposure is adapted from an online course that I just launched, The Science of Subliminal Influence, available exclusively on Curious.com. Curious is a neat website where you pay a low monthly subscription to learn about all sort of neat things, ranging from academic topics like psychology to more skill-development topics like art, design, and writing. Check it out!

I’ve also covered mere exposure in my online course, “Psychology of Attraction and Likability.”

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.  And the women who had shown up 5 and 10 times were somewhere in the middle.

4 thoughts on “The Mere Exposure Effect

    • It bugs me a lot when writers in different genres are unippuortsve and antagonistic towards each other. We are all writers, we all try to do good work, we should respect each other and try to learn from each other.

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