Guest Post by Kerry O’Connor
Have you ever heard a song on the radio for the first time and really hated it, but a month later you find yourself at karaoke night belting the song out with your friends? Or maybe you’re an 8th grade girl and your friend buys a pair of boots that are by this Australian brand called Ugg, and you think they are UGGly, but then you see commercials for them, and advertisements in Glamour magazine, and next thing you know they end up on your Christmas list. Could simply being exposed to the song a couple times, or seeing Uggs boots more than once really change your attitude toward them?
Psychologists have found that attitudes towards an object can be changed through persuasive messages. However, they have also found more subtle ways that our attitudes can be changed. Specifically, our attitudes can be changed simply by repeated exposure to an object.
Our attitudes about an object are generally positive or negative. However, mere exposure (repeated prior exposure) to an object can lead to more liking, and thus a more positive attitude toward the object. The mere exposure effect has to do with a concept called fluency.
Psychologists refer to fluency as the ease of processing information. People tend to agree with or believe information that is easier to read visually or easier to understand. Repeated exposure makes the attitude object easier to process. This process explains why you like that song more after it has been overplayed on the radio for a week.
Mere Exposure and Liking
In 1968, Robert Zajonc showed that people like a stimulus object more after repeated exposure. In his original study, he told participants he was studying how people learn new languages. The participants all spoke English, and were shown Chinese ideographs zero, one, two, five, ten, or twenty-five times. Participants were then asked to guess if they thought the Chinese ideographs were positive or negative. Can you guess what he found?
As predicted, the more times the participant viewed the character, the more positive they guessed the meaning of the ideograph. This showed that mere exposure alone could lead to greater liking of a stimulus object.
Mere Exposure and Attraction
So maybe Zajonc is right, and the more times we see a picture, we tend to like it more. But can this work with people too?
One study investigated the association between mere exposure and attraction. They studied student’s perceived affinity toward a confederate woman in their large (200 students) college course. Four women similar in appearance posed as students in a large college classroom, each attending a different number of class sessions (0, 5, 10, or 15 sessions). Students had no reason to interact with these women, and there was nothing unusual about them that would capture anyone’s attention.
At the end of the semester, the students were shown pictures of the women and asked questions that obtained scores for perceived familiarity, similarity, and attractiveness. The women who attended more class sessions were perceived overall as more attractive. Students even believed that they would be more likely to become friends with the women who attended more classroom sessions.
So, you may be thinking that you should take all the same classes as your crush, but there are limitations to the mere exposure effect.
Alright, so maybe you have gathered that the more times you are exposed to an object, or a person, the more attractive the object becomes. However, you might be thinking, what about that kid you dislike who is always whistling in your dorm room, and the more times you hear him whistle the more annoyed you become? Well, mere exposure does have its limitations. If topic already has a negative association with it before repeated exposure (such as the annoying kid down the hall) then the mere exposure effect will backfire.
One study found the limitations of the mere exposure effect with a study that involved positive and negative emotion words. Participants were asked to rate how positive or negative they associated the words after repeated exposure. He found that positive words were rated more positively the more times the words were repeated (as expected), but that negative words were rated more negatively after repeated exposure. So, changing your major just to be in all your crushes classes might not be the best idea…better to find out now, right?
The mere exposure effect can lead to more positive attitudes toward a neutral object. However, if we already have negative feelings toward the object, it can exacerbate them. The mere exposure effect is used by advertisement everyday. They constantly replay the same message so you remember it, making the message easier to understand, and thus changing your opinion. So, maybe give that song another play, it may end up being your new ringtone.
Kerry O’Connor wrote this article as a final writing assignment in my Attitudes and Persuasion class at the College of Wooster.