In my last column, we saw that the likelihood of attraction, becoming friends or forming a romantic relationship increases as the physical distance between two people decreases. Students in the same classes, commuters who catch the same bus every morning, people who shop in the same grocery store—they’re all more likely to be attracted to each other and develop closer relationships because of the power of proximity.
But why? One of the most intriguing explanations for this effect was proposed by the social psychologist Robert Zajonc. In the 1960s, Zajonc became interested in the way in which organisms react to new stimuli in their environment. Ever noticed how puppies almost always react with fear when they encounter a new object? And yet, the more times they see that object, the less they’re afraid of it. After a while, they may even come to like that once mysterious object.
It was an observation similar to this that led Zajonc to his groundbreaking work on what psychologists now call the "mere exposure effect." In a series of ingenious lab experiments, he showed that exposing people to a familiar stimulus led them to rate it more positively than other stimuli that hadn’t been presented as frequently.
For example, in one experiment, Zajonc showed participants Chinese characters and nonsense syllables, with some characters being presented more frequently than others. The participants were then told that the symbols were adjectives and were asked to rate whether the symbols held positive or negative connotations. The symbols that had been seen more frequently were rated more positively than those there were presented less frequently.
In other words, the more times participants saw a Chinese character or nonsense syllable, the more likely they were to say it meant something good.
In another study, Zajonc showed participants twelve photographs of men. Each photograph was displayed for a couple of seconds, but some pictures were shown only once, while others were shown up to twenty-five times. When Zajonc asked his participants to rate how much they liked each of the men in the photographs, he found that the more times participants saw a man’s face, the more they liked him.
To fully appreciate the power of mere exposure outside the lab, consider this study by Richard Moreland and Scott Beach. These researchers first selected four women who looked like typical students to act as accomplices in their experiment (that is, they knew what was going on). All four had their photos taken, then attended class in different frequencies. One never went to class, another attended five classes, the third attended ten and the fourth attended class fifteen times over the semester.
At the end of the semester, students in the class were presented with slides of all four women and were asked to rate how physically attractive each woman was, along with some other ratings. Exactly as you’d expect based on the theory of mere exposure, the researchers found that the more classes an accomplice had attended, the more other students rated her as attractive. What’s more, the more she’d attended classes, the more other students said they wanted to spend time with her and thought she was intelligent, among other things.
The "mere exposure effect" is one of my favourite findings in social psychology because it is counter-intuitive. We’re often told that familiarity breeds contempt, but in fact the theory of mere exposure predicts just the opposite—familiarity, it would seem, actually breeds attraction. Whether it’s a person, sounds, drawings, words and names, objects, or even nonsense symbols, the more we’re exposed to something the more we like it. And the theory helps explain why we like others who are nearby.
What’s more, the mere exposure effect has also led to some interesting findings. Here’s one that you could try for yourself using any basic computer graphics programme. First, take a photograph of your face facing the camera; next, on your computer graphics programme, flip the image horizontally (left-side-right) so you end up with two images—the original and your flipped version. Which image of yourself do you prefer?
Theodore Mita and his colleagues did something similar. University students had their photos taken and were later shown the same photo along with a mirror image of it. Asked which picture they liked better, most participants preferred the mirror image. But when a close friend of the participants were asked which photo they liked more and which was more flattering for their friend, most preferred the true image. The reason? Because we’re more used to seeing our mirror image, this is the view of ourselves that we prefer. Our friends, on the other hand, usually prefer our regular faces because those are the faces that they are used to seeing.
If you’re looking for love, the lesson of mere exposure is simple: it pays to be seen and to be seen frequently. Before any kind of interaction has taken place, repeated and regular exposure will, all things being equal, make you seem more likeable and attractive to potential partners. Trust in the power of mere exposure: familiarity breeds liking, not contempt.
But a word of warning: it’s not all plain sailing when it comes to mere exposure. If someone takes a dislike to a stimulus, repeated exposure to that stimulus will only increase the dislike. So, if that first encounter goes horribly wrong, the best thing to do might be to give it time before trying again. Even mere exposure can’t save a bad first impression.
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