The Mere-Exposure Effect: Familiarity Breeds Preference

The mere-exposure effect is a fascinating psychological phenomenon where people tend to develop a preference for things simply because they are familiar with them. Also known as the familiarity principle, this effect has been demonstrated in various contexts, including words, Chinese characters, paintings, faces, geometric figures, and sounds. In the realm of interpersonal attraction, individuals tend to find someone more pleasing and likable the more they encounter them.

Applications in Advertising

One of the most evident applications of the mere-exposure effect is in advertising. Advertisers aim to leverage this phenomenon to enhance consumer attitudes toward specific companies and products. Research on its effectiveness has yielded mixed results. For instance, a study using banner ads on a computer screen showed that college students exposed to a specific banner rated it more favorably than other less frequently shown ads. This study supported the mere-exposure effect. However, higher levels of media exposure for companies can also lead to lower reputations, even with mostly positive exposure. The large number of associations that exposure brings about can result in ambivalence. The effect is particularly potent when a company or product is new and unfamiliar to consumers.

Moreover, the mere-exposure effect influences consumer behavior unconsciously. Advertisements don't necessarily require deep cognitive processing; simple repetition can create a memory trace in the consumer's mind, affecting their consumption choices. Buyers often choose what they "like" without extensive thought, according to Zajonc's claim that choices can be preattitudinal.

Impact Beyond Advertising

The mere-exposure effect extends its influence to various other aspects of human decision-making. For instance, stock traders may tend to invest in familiar domestic companies, even if international markets offer comparable or superior alternatives. In academia, the effect distorts journal-ranking surveys, as individuals who have previously published or reviewed for a specific journal tend to rate it significantly higher than those who haven't.

However, the effect's impact on promoting good relations between different social groups remains contentious. When groups already hold negative attitudes toward each other, further exposure can increase hostility. In the realm of politics, candidates' exposure has a significant effect on the number of votes they receive, distinct from the popularity of their policies.


The mere-exposure effect plays a fundamental role in shaping human preferences and decision-making. Familiarity often breeds preference, and this psychological phenomenon has broad implications in advertising, consumer behavior, academia, and intergroup relations. Understanding the influence of the mere-exposure effect can provide valuable insights into the complex mechanisms that underlie human cognition and behavior.

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