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.
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