Home > Aging, Development, Memory, Pattern Recognition > “It’s an acquired taste”: Beer and the Mere-Exposure Effect

“It’s an acquired taste”: Beer and the Mere-Exposure Effect

I remember when I had my first beer…

It was vile.

Whether you’re sneaking one from the fridge in high school, playing pong during your first college weekend, or (rarely the case) enjoying your inaugural brew on the night of your 21st birthday, there is nothing too remarkable about this adult soda striking our taste buds for the first time. In fact, there is a pretty generic response: it simply does not taste good. As we drink more beer we begin to appreciate this canned goodness. This is not the alcohol talking. That first Natty light, a beverage I remember initially resembling a nauseating blend of pinto beans and carbonated water, took every muscle in our bodies to choke down. Now it has become nothing less than a fine pilsner: the most Natural of Light, some would say. Why?

It is pretty common knowledge that most of us do not like our first taste of beer!

Where and when does the transformation occur? How do we go from having a negative opinion about something to having a beer every night at dinner? The classic saying is that beer is an acquired taste, but the real work behind this acquisition is the mere-exposure effect. This psychological phenomenon explains why we learn to like things (in this case, malt beverages) as we encounter them more. According to the findings of psychological studies in the sixties, the more we are exposed to something, the more “likable” it becomes (Zajonc 1968).

The mere-exposure effect is an idea that makes logical sense. Throughout our lives, we often find ourselves placed in environments of unfamiliarity. As human beings, when we are unfamiliar with something, we are uncomfortable and do not like the situation. We just do not like things that we do not know. This is why we avoid new things and stick with the familiar. However, as we are increasingly exposed to something, we become more familiar with it, and thus, more comfortable.

This relationship between familiarities, comfort across situations, and liking are at the forefront of the mere-exposure effect. This relationship has been revisited by researchers (Montoya et al. 2017). A return to the mere-exposure effect was due to the desire to research more and a feeling that existing research did not explain things sufficiently. These researchers wanted to look even more into specific stimuli (like beer!), and how these differences can show differences across the mere-exposure effect. In other words, they wanted to answer the same question: how the hell do we end up actually liking beer? Their findings indicated that memory seems to be one of the defining factors. The way memory works here is complicated, but trust me, I am no expert… I just like beer enough to have done my research!

Memory can be thought of in many different ways, but the best way to think of it is in the context of time devoted to something– in other words, attention. If we only have one sip of beer one time, we are not devoting enough attention to it. Obviously, in the college environment, we are not having “one beer”– no matter what you are telling your parents. So in our exposure to beer, we are beginning to devote an increasing amount of attention to this malt beverage. Interpreting a stimuli, processing a stimuli, and encoding a stimuli into our memory trace are how we make our memories. Our most clear and familiar memories are ones that we feel incredibly comfortable with and are linked with our liking. After 4 years of college, beer is all over our memory trace… even if we cannot remember many of the times or experiences following its consumption. This familiar memory trace is what explains the mere-exposure effect. It is an automatic response to the fourth process of memory: retrieval. It begins with the original pattern recognizing process of remembering the distinct taste, continues with the transfer to a encoding mechanism in our brains, and ends with the ability this whenever we so desire. Since we are exposed to so much beer while we age and develop, our retrieval process is faster and the preference emerges. This is what pushes us to the fridge at the end of the day to crack open a refreshing, cold brew.

Obviously, the mere-exposure effect is not limited to just beer. It has been proven with faces, letters, sounds, shapes, you name it (Bornstein and D’Agostino 1992). Even people increasing interaction between people shows this effect. Being able to trace how this sort of behavior works in our minds helps explain how we can grow to like things, people, places, and situations by simply giving them more time and attention. The mere-exposure effect shows how powerful our memory system is in dictating our beliefs and opinions about different aspects of our lives. Once we begin to expose ourselves to something, we begin to be naturally drawn towards whatever it may be.

This becomes an important and applicable idea when we begin to think about people. In the field of Social Psychology, the mere-exposure effect becomes the most applicable to our everyday lives. We are almost always interacting with people, but it is the people we interact with most that we tend to show a preference… even if we don’t know them. Whether it be just seeing their faces 15 times  in a semester across a lecture hall or in the library every Tuesday night, we like people more when they solidify themselves in our memory traces. Before we did not even know these people, but after increased exposure and battering their face into our memory traces, we have an almost inexplicable attraction and preference for them. Do first impressions even matter then? All we have to do is expose ourselves to people and they will like us more. I’m not encouraging being a stalker, but if you want that cutie in your Cognitive Psych class to like you more, heres a tip: go to class! If she sees you twice a week for a semester, she’ll like you more! Thank Psychology: the best wing-man out there.

For this same reason, we can now begin to process just how Dad can casually sip on a Coors light every night at dinner. It just does not make sense until you look at it from a psychological standpoint. The first beer we have is an entirely new experience. We don’t know what it will taste like and our brain has nothing to work with. That first experience is biased already because it is an uncomfortable experience. Once we fill our red solo cups up at the keg a few dozen times and shotgun our handful of beers, we become more familiar with beer’s taste as it becomes more vivid and present in our memory system. One could honestly argue that the typical college experience facilitates and speeds up our mere-exposure effect for beer.

So if you ever wonder how you got to liking something you did not like, or how you ended up liking someone you never thought you would: you probably acquired these feelings. Just like beer is an acquired taste, our feelings of liking are acquired via the mere-exposure effect. It’s all Natural! Just like the first lukewarm suds that once made you cringe.


Behind water and tea, beer is the most popular drink in the world…


1. Bornstein, Robert F.; D’Agostino, Paul R.“Stimulus recognition and the mere exposure effect”: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 63(4), Oct 1992, 545-552.

2. Montoya, R. Matthew; Horton, Robert S.; Vevea, Jack L.; Citkowicz, Martyna; Lauber, Elissa A.“A Re-Examination of the Mere Exposure Effect: The Influence of Repeated Exposure on Recognition, Familiarity, and Liking”: Psychological Bulletin, Mar 06, 2017.

3. Zajonc, R. B. “Feeling and thinking: Preferences need no inferences”: American Psychologist, Vol 35(2), Feb 1980, 151-175.


  1. yzhao
    May 11th, 2017 at 14:58 | #1

    The example of beer you give is so relatable, although I personally am still in the process of acquiring a taste for beer… Mere exposure effect is one of the most common yet most overlooked cognitive biases, which is because of its prevalence and, as you mentioned, it being a completely automatic and unconscious process. To add a little extra explanation to why things we encounter often tend to grow on us, we often have positive dispositions towards things we expect to encounter often, which could guide our behavior and eventually become a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the flip side, there is also the potential effect of cognitive dissonance. For example, if someone doesn’t enjoy the taste of beer they drink every Friday, their action of drinking would appear quite absurd and cause cognitive distress, which, if they don’t stop drinking completely, would require some changes in belief to reconcile. Both mechanisms can arrive at similar result as the mere-exposure effect.

  2. lnfann20
    May 10th, 2017 at 16:47 | #2

    This is a great post! I had heard of the mere exposure effect before in reference to people but I think it’s so interesting that you linked it to beer. This topic reminded me a little bit of when we talked about face recognition and the own-race and own-age biases. Since you are more likely to recognize something that you have seen a lot, perhaps you are more likely to like it or have positive feelings towards it. This also reminded me of frequency effects of attention and memory. I can definitely relate to the phenomenon you described of being uncomfortable with new or different things, and not liking them because of this. It’s a very human thing to be averse to change.

  3. Jacqueline Albanese
    May 4th, 2017 at 20:49 | #3

    This is such a funny and interesting post! I was immediately drawn to this because of the way you linked the acquired taste of beer to the mere exposure effect. I had previously learned about the mere exposure effect in my social psychology class last semester, but had only been thinking about it in terms of attraction between people. I like how you related this effect to the taste of beer, among other things and situations that didn’t have to do with people amongst each other. I found it particularly interesting how you mentioned that the mere exposure effect is reliant on memory and recognition, and how when you first experience or see something your brain has nothing to go off of, therefore making it uncomfortable. I had never thought to think of the mere exposure effect in this way, but it now makes sense in that the first time of anything is most times uncomfortable. But then with time as we become used to something and it becomes more common, we start to enjoy it more. This, which I have now learned, is due to our ability to remember it better and to recognize it as familiar. This ties in to the availability heuristic, in which we rely on the immediate examples that come to mind when we are evaluating something. The availability heuristic seems like it could help to explain the mere-exposure effect because the more we are exposed to something, the more “available” it becomes in our memory and recognition. Therefore, if we are trying to evaluate something, the more we’ve been exposed to it, the easier it is for us to evaluate it as positive!

  4. krmcma20
    May 2nd, 2017 at 23:31 | #4

    I really enjoyed this post because of how relatable it is to everyday life. I remember learning about the mere-exposure effect in my Social Psychology class last semester in the context of relationships. Festinger’s (1950) Westgate West study brought strangers into a collection of apartment buildings and asked them after a period of time who they became friends with. People reported that they felt closer to people in the same building as themselves than those in other buildings, and also said that they were better friends with people one door down in comparison to two doors down and onwards. Just by seeing certain people more often than others increases liking, exemplifying the mere-exposure effect. So, by looking at this bias in terms of relationships, you could use the mere-exposure effect to get your crush to like you. Just by running into him or her consistently every day could increase his or her liking for you!

  5. jdrose20
    April 30th, 2017 at 17:50 | #5

    This is a very interesting post and it does a great job of explaining how we become accustomed to things we may not like in the first place. It mentions, near the end, the role that memory and attention play in this phenomenon. How does focusing your attention on something make it more likable, or at least bearable? Also, how does that relate to the college experience and beer? I was thinking that maybe, when you’re in college, if you are thinking about beer and alcohol more often (than you would, say, when you were in high school), does this focus of attention have to do with increasing familiarity which thereby makes you more accustomed to it? I am also curious how memory biases may play a role in this phenomenon. As the mere exposure effect says, when you experience something more times, you begin to like it more. I am wondering if change bias may occur. For instance, when you are 30 and are thinking back to that first sip, will you remember it as being even more disgusting than it actually was? Or perhaps because you like it so much now, you will experience consistency bias and think that you didn’t think it was that bad when you first tried it. A lot of cool things to think about with this phenomenon!

  6. jclutian
    April 29th, 2017 at 21:26 | #6

    This post really gives good insight in a very relatable experience. I was just wondering, since this bias is so dependent on memory for people who have dementia or amnesia whose cognitive processes are degrading, would their perception/relationship with alcohol essentially be erased? I guess the real question I am asking would be if a person’s relationship with beer or any alcoholic drink categorized as part of someone’s episodic memory or procedural memory? It would be logical that consuming alcohol be in someone’s episodic memory because it is not a daily activity for most people. However, for heavy drinkers and even alcoholics would consuming alcohol be an automatic process? It was mentioned in lecture that complex tasks that are controlled could very well be automatic when given attention and ample practice.

  7. April 25th, 2017 at 17:05 | #7

    Nice post! The idea of the mere-exposure effect got me thinking about whether or not there is an opposite phenomenon? I don’t know if I’m alone here, but I’ve definitely had times where I ate way too much of one food in a short period and then the thought of it nauseated me for the next week. I feel like sometimes we even get sick of other people if we’re around them for too long… sort of like an over-exposure effect! An article that might be interesting to read and compare to the mere-exposure effect is “When mere exposure leads to less liking: The incremental threat effect in intergroup contexts” by Crisp, Hutter, and Young.

  8. April 18th, 2017 at 14:06 | #8

    Very interesting and relatable post! Another psychological phenomenon that may be in play is expectancy. People will react differently based on their expectations of a given situation. So if first-time drinkers expect their beverage to taste badly (which is often the case), they are more likely to have an adverse reaction to the flavor. According to a study by Brown, Christiansen, and Goldman (1987), expectancies regarding alcohol vary according to a wide range of factors. One of the most influential factors is prior drinking experiences, which ties into your post on the mere-exposure effect. The more people are exposed to or familiar with the taste of certain alcoholic beverages, the more their expectancy will change. These new expectancies may then contribute to the “acquired taste” in beer or other drinks.

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