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What Familiarity Really Breeds

Quick – what’s your favorite song right now? You know, that one that gets you moving and singing along, at least in your head. Why do you like that particular song? Because it has an awesome beat? Or because it moves you emotionally? Or has a catchy tune?

There is a good chance that part of the reason you like it so much is simply because you have heard it a lot.

Merely Exposed

This is The Mere Exposure Effect (or Familiarity Principle), a cognitive bias. When you hear a song in the grocery store and on the radio and in a TV commercial and on a “recommended” streaming playlist, you are more likely to increase your liking of it over time. This may account for why every generation of old people (like me) prefer the music of their youth to the pop music of today – it is more familiar to us.

Caveat: If you REALLY disliked a song the first time you heard it, repeated exposure probably won’t make you start liking it – it will just annoy you more each time.

Subtle vs drastic change

A classic example of the Mere Exposure Effect is when ebay, in its early years, used a bright yellow background for its site. Most users probably didn’t care what the color was, but when ebay suddenly changed it to white, they were flooded with angry emails from their users who said they preferred the yellow. Why did they suddenly care about the color? Because they were familiar with the yellow background and the change to white was jarring.

So ebay reversed the color back to yellow. “But Steve,” you ask, “Isn’t ebay’s background color currently white?” Yes it is. Ebay created an algorithm to re-introduce the white background one subtle shade change at a time over a period of several months. Nobody noticed and nobody cared. Each successive shade wasn’t totally new, and it seemed like the one we were familiar with.

Subliminal Comfort Zone

The cause of our preference for the familiar comes from the primitive, instinctual part of our brain. If something is new, we have to be on our guard in case it is a threat. Once we have been exposed to it without incident – even just once previously – we are more at ease and comfortable with each new exposure.

We don’t even have to know we have been exposed to something to have a preference for it. A study by social psychologist Robert Zajonc showed that when images are shown to test subjects at a speed too fast to be picked up consciously, the subjects preferred those images later over images not shown previously. In fact, the preference is stronger when the exposure is subliminal!

The Mere Exposure Effect is a form of resistance – the lizard’s brain way of getting us to avoid change and stay in the comfort of the status quo. It is a problematic invisible mind block because it can cause us to reject a great idea or product just because it is too different from what we are used to.

Ever wonder why TiVo boxes look like VCRs when they could be any shape, size or color? Because the familiar sight of a black box under the TV made the new concept of a DVR easier to accept.

Networking or NOT-working?

We also see this at networking events, which are intended to help people gain exposure for their businesses by making connections with new people. While this sounds good in theory, the “new” part makes our lizard brains uncomfortable. So what happens? We limit our exposure to new people by hanging out with people we know already. On average we spend half our time talking to people we know!

Circumventing the effect

When giving a presentation to an audience, my goal is to challenge them with new ideas and perspectives. But I need to avoid the Mere Exposure Effect by ensuring that the idea can relate to something they are already familiar with. For example, when I talk about the Gamblers’ Fallacy to HR groups, I show how it can affect performance reviews or hiring practices, areas with which they are familiar.

Whether you are a parent or supervisor or team member, if you have a bold new idea try presenting it as “similar but better” to what is currently used or done rather than something radically different.

Confront the lizard

We can perform better and make better decisions by deciding to change our perspective. When we are presented with something new and foreign, we can take a moment to consider whether our attitude towards it is due to its level of merit, quality, or validity, or is it the lizard brain telling you to beware because it is new?

Don't be afraid to confront the lizard!

Think well and be well.

- Steve.


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