Mere Exposure Effect: How Familiarity Breeds Attraction

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The mere exposure effect refers to a psychological phenomenon in which people prefer things that they are familiar with. The more frequently people are exposed to something, the more they tend to prefer it.

The mere exposure effect can have an impact on a variety of different areas of life. For example, being exposed to advertisements for a product might make you prefer that item more. It can even cause you to like people more simply because you spend a lot of time around them, such as your co-workers or even potential romantic partners.

Examples of Mere Exposure Effect

You can probably think of a few examples of where being exposed to something help you like it more. A few common examples:

  • Advertisements: There's a reason why you keep seeing ads for the same products and services over and over again. It works. The more you see the ad, the more familiar the product seems and the more likely you are to purchase it.
  • Music: People tend to prefer songs they have heard before over new music they've never encountered. It's the reason you might turn to a playlist of your favorite songs when you feel stressed.
  • People: If you've seen someone before, even briefly, you are more likely to have positive feelings about them when you see them again.
  • Consumer products: People often continue to buy the same items time and time again because they are familiar with them, and not because they are the best product or because they are satisfied with the item.

How Does the Mere Exposure Effect Relate to Attraction?

The mere exposure effect can impact who you are attracted to. Simply by spending more time with someone, the more attractive you may find them. It's sometimes why people may find themselves developing crushes on co-workers or falling in love with their best friends.

People can also use this to their advantage if they want the object of their affection to notice them. Simply spending more time with the person you like may help them feel a greater affinity and attraction toward you.

Why It Happens

Most of the time, we are not even aware of the mere exposure effect. It takes place automatically and unconsciously. We might feel drawn to certain things, but we are not really sure why we like them so much.

While the exact reasons why the mere exposure effect happens are not fully clear, there are a few possible explanations:

Exposure Reduces Uncertainty

One possible explanation for the mere exposure effect is the fact that increased familiarity helps combat uncertainty. Because we are familiar with the things we have been exposed to, they seem less threatening and anxiety-provoking.

This perspective is rooted in evolutionary psychology, which suggests that people are naturally inclined to be cautious and even suspicious of unfamiliar things. The more people are exposed to something, the more they realize that it does not pose a threat.

Familiarity Makes Processing Easier

Choosing things we are more familiar with reduces the amount of effort it takes to process and interpret things in the world around us. We only have so many cognitive and attentional resources to make sense of the things in our environment. Sticking with what is familiar frees up our resources so we can shift our focus elsewhere.

Familiar Can Soothe Anxiety

Sometimes turning to something familiar, such as a tv show we’ve already seen or a favorite song we’ve heard many times, can have a comforting effect and help reduce feelings of tension and anxiety.

Researchers have found that tuning in to reruns of a favorite tv show can be a great way to soothe stress. Studies have found that people tend to prefer watching familiar shows when they are feeling depleted. That might be while you sometimes might feel more inclined to queue up an old favorite at the end of an exhausting day rather than dig into the latest episode of your current tv obsession.

Is the Mere Exposure Effect Bad?

The mere exposure effect can be both good and bad. In interpersonal situations, mere exposure can help people develop a greater affinity for one another, which can help aid group cohesiveness. However, it can also cause people to miss out on opportunities and information. Because people tend to prefer the familiar, they often become unwilling to try new things or accept new information.

How Mere Exposure Effect Impacts Everyday Life

While most people are completely unaware of its influence, the mere exposure effect has a significant impact on many aspects of everyday life. From the products you buy to the relationships you have, mere exposure impacts your choices, attitudes, and behaviors.

Understanding how mere exposure works can help give greater insight into how it can shape your preferences and decision-making processes. It can also help you better understand why you sometimes like some objects, places, products, or people more simply because you are more familiar with them.

In Relationships

The mere exposure effect can have a powerful influence on how we feel about others. The time with spend around someone and the more familiar they become, the more likely we are to prefer them to other people. In some cases, the mere exposure effect can play a part in friendships turning into romantic relationships.

In romantic relationships, this effect can play a part in deepening feelings of intimacy. As you become more aware of each other's interests, personalities, habits, and quirks, the more likely to are to feel positive about them as an individual.

At Work

The mere exposure effect can also shape the attitudes and perceptions of co-workers and employers. When you first start a job, you may feel less affinity for the work and for your colleagues simply because you do not know them well.

As you settle in and become more familiar, you are more likely to eventually develop a more positive perception of your job. Merely by being exposed to it, your feelings about it changed.

In Decision-Making

Mere exposure can also have other effects on your life, including on the decisions that you make each and every day. For example, imagine that you are trying to decide between two similar options when buying a new car. You've never owned either model, but you did once take an Uber that was the same make and model as one of your options. Because you are familiar with it, no matter how brief that exposure was, you may feel a greater affinity for that car just because it is more familiar.

One study found that exposure that is spaced out over time produces greater liking than sudden, all-at-once exposure.

How to Avoid Mere Exposure Effect

There are some strategies that might help limit how much of an impact the mere exposure effect has on your preferences and decision-making. Steps you can take to lessen its impact include:

  • Be aware of mere exposure: Simply recognizing that the mere exposure effect exists can help you find ways to counteract it. If you find yourself getting stuck in a rut and always reaching for the same things, take a moment to challenge yourself. Is it something you really want, or do you like it just because it's the only thing you know?
  • Try new things: Challenge yourself to step outside of your comfort zone and try a variety of things rather than always sticking with what's familiar. Order a different dish at your favorite restaurant, listen to new music you've never heard before, and vacation in places where you've never been. Not only will it expose you to new experiences and diverse people, but it will also help you discover things you like beyond what's familiar to you.
  • Take a break from the familiar: Having a routine can be good for your mental health, but it is also a good idea to shake things up once in a while. If you always spend your Friday evenings watching reruns of your favorite show, challenge yourself to do something different. Check out a local event in your community or call a friend for an evening of board games and conversation.
  • Seek out diverse perspectives: It's easy to get stuck in a filter bubble where we surround ourselves with people, opinions, and perspectives that are very similar to our own. Make it a point to actively seek out diverse points of view, whether it is in the news you consume, the films you watch, the books you read, or the people you follow on social media. Exposing yourself to new ideas can help you be more open-minded about letting go of the familiar and trying new things.

While the mere exposure effect is difficult to avoid altogether, there is some evidence that it may be self-limiting. Think of it this way; while you might like something as you get more familiar with it, you might eventually grow bored once the novelty wears off.

You've likely experienced this phenomenon before if you've ever found yourself replaying a song over and over again. At first, repeated listening seems to reinforce your love for the song. You know the lyrics now. You can sing along in your car on the way to work. But after so many repetitions, you might suddenly hit a saturation point where the song feels tired and you no longer want to listen to it.

In other words, mere exposure might increase how much you like something, but you might eventually lose interest—particularly if it is something like a relationship that isn't right for you.

The next time you find yourself drawn to something (or someone), ask yourself if the attraction stems from genuine interest or if mere exposure might be playing a role. While it isn't always a bad thing, always sticking to what you know can be limiting and lead to fewer options and experiences. It might not be possible to avoid the mere exposure effect altogether, but being more aware of it can help give you a bit more perspective on the things that shape your interests, preferences, and attractions.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Derrick JL. Energized by television: Familiar fictional worlds restore self-control. Social Psychological and Personality Science. 2013;4(3):299-307. doi:10.1177/1948550612454889

  2. Palumbo R, Di Domenico A, Fairfield B, Mammarella N. When twice is better than once: increased liking of repeated items influences memory in younger and older adults. BMC Psychol. 2021;9(1):25. doi:10.1186/s40359-021-00531-8

  3. Bornstein RF, Kale AR, Cornell KR. Boredom as a limiting condition on the mere exposure effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1990;58(5):791-800. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.58.5.791

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.