Home > Categorization, Cognitive Bias, Decision Making, Memory, Metacognition, Pattern Recognition > “Want to try something new?””Nah, let’s just go to McDonald’s.” — How mere exposure affect decision making.

“Want to try something new?””Nah, let’s just go to McDonald’s.” — How mere exposure affect decision making.

Imagine you start to feel hungry when you walk on the street while traveling in Florida. You see a McDonald’s and another local fast-food restaurant, “Hook” on the side of the street. Which one would you choose to go?

“Hook” (hooksfishnchicken.com)

McDonald’s(US Pirg)

Well, the choice of the majority would be McDonald’s. But why is this the case? They are all fast-food restaurants. Is it because McDonald’s is tastier? Or does McDonald’s often have a better price? Not necessarily. Hook, the restaurant that you’ve probably never heard of, could just as well be cheaper and tastier. Yet, your familiarity with McDonald’s prompts you to steer your vehicle into the drive-thru lane. Our tendency to prefer familiar things is referred to as the “mere exposure effect”.


Mere exposure effect is so powerful in our real life. Just as the name indicates, frequent exposure can change your attitude towards objects or even people and causing you to favor it over others, even if your first impression tells you otherwise. The “acquired taste” phenomenon is a classic example that even if you don’t like the taste of something when you first try it, you’ll gradually grow to like it. If you still don’t believe mere exposure effect changed your attitude at this point, don’t rush to move your mouse to the close button. You might had a different opinion but forgot about it because you n because we tend to believe that our beliefs and values are consistent across time (This is another cognitive bias referred to as consistency bias. There is also a related bias called status-quo bias that reflects people’s unwillingness to change)

Why do we prefer familiar items? Let’s look at some studies on the mere exposure effect.

The original study of the mere exposure effect was conducted 50 years ago by Zajonc, whose research found that people tend to have a preference towards more commonly used words (Zajonc, 1968). At the same time, animal behavior researchers have noticed that animals also show avoidance towards novelty. This behavior prevents ingestion of unfamiliar foods which can be unpalatable or even poisonous. Meanwhile, the usual foods, which the animals are drawn towards, are guaranteed to be safe and delicious (Shettleworth, 1972).  Thus, we can infer that the favoring familiar items lead to better chances of survival for humans as well. In another study,  researchers found that we not only have a preference towards familiar items, but also familiar structural rules, such as the English grammar (Zizak & Reber, 2004). Do you sometimes feel like “I think this sentence is wrong but I put my finger on it?” Your grammatical instinct could be explained by the structural mere exposure effect – we not only prefer familiar items themselves but also ones that follow familiar structures. You can tell that the sentence, which you haven’t seen before, is wrong because it doesn’t follow the grammatical rules that you are familiar with. Conversely, we often find it difficult to proofread our own work because we are so familiar with our own writing style that even the mistakes appear to be right.

However, familiarity doesn’t seem to affect our objective judgment. In another study, participants were asked to rate handkerchiefs, which they’ve touched, some for more times than others, as well as to rate their smoothness. Participants’ subjective judgement for the handkerchiefs were biased, for they reported to like the more familiar ones. Their objective judgement, however, did not change. They do not report feeling the familiar handkerchiefs any smoother or softer. Therefore, the mere exposure effect only affects our subjective judgement of preferences. (Mitsuda & Yoshioka, 2017).

Now we know some of the characteristics of the mere exposure effect. We tend to develop a preference towards familiar items and rules, but our judgments towards objective standards would not be biased. An explanation is that our decision-making process is largely memory-based. We rely a lot on top-down information based on our memory to recognize things and make decisions. Let’s go back to the McDonald’s example. When you are driving on the road, you first take in several visual features: grey roof, the golden arch and the letters “McDonald’s.” These features match up pretty much all the McDonald’s features that you stored in your memory, so you recognize this as a McDonald’s. We are unaware of this recognition process because our familiarity with McDonald’s automates it, and we like this kind of automatic process because it’s faster and easier. Since we tend to categorize information and store related information together when you try to retrieve the visual features of McDonald’s, your experiences with McDonald’s get activated as well. Then you’ll probably think of your experiences with McDonald’s products: the taste, smell, etc. The frequency of experience with McDonald’s leads to more memory traces and connections stored, and this makes it easier to retrieve this information. Therefore, when you see the golden arch, your knowledge of McDonald’s burgers, fries and sodas subconsciously comes back to you and paints a concrete picture of the joint. We tend to prefer these concrete memories than when a single “Hook” sign (Svenson, Salo, & van de Loo, 2007). The unusual exteriors of the following McDonald’s might not activate your memory of McDonald’s, because they look unfamiliar to you. Thus, it might take you longer to recognize that restaurant as a McDonald’s, and it might not trigger the same memory retrieval as a typical McDonald’s. Apart from the memory aspect, there also might be some instinctive factor that contributes to the mere exposure effect. Neuropsychologists discovered that people with amnesia, who are unable to retrieve memory and form new memories, are also influenced by mere exposure effect (Marin-Garcia, Ruiz-Vargas, & Kapur, 2013).



Yes it is a McDonald’s in Copenhagen (Entrepreneur.com)

Yes this is another McDonald’s in China (Youtube.com)

But this familiarity-driven judgement isn’t always beneficial in our daily life. First is that familiarity could overshadow the more important factors that we should care more about. How do you make purchase decisions? Do you think advertisements are affecting your decision? Well, most will probably say, “I’m resistant to the advertisement. I still pay more attention to the actual quality and price.” Well, the sad truth is we’re not that resistant as you think. One study showed that mere exposure to product brands through commercials lead to consumers favoring it over unfamiliar brands (Ruggieri & Boca, 2013). That is to say, the more commercial of a product you see, the more you will like this product, and this has nothing to do with the product’s actual price and quality. We often see massive advertisements from various media, on the street, on newspapers, and on websites. This mass advertising is a purposeful use of the mere exposure effect by the advertisers.

Do you really like famous brands for its quality?(www.missmalini.com)

Another problem is that people might get familiar with things that’s no. When you are picking college, did you do a lot of research about the academics, or watched a lot of TV shows depicting party scenes in colleges? A recent study showed that if you read more fictional college media during your school research process, tend to have a positive attitude towards socializing and partying in college (Nuñez, 2018). Partying is not necessarily bad, but partying is usually related to drinking and other substance use, and excessive drinking is definitely harmful. What could make this case even worse is that the more you drink, the more you go to parties and drink, you might gradually like the taste of alcohol and the party environment, which leads to more drinking.

Media like this often describe party scene as appealing, but it’s not really a good idea to drink and party a lot.(www.helpwithassignment.com)

The mere exposure effect tells us our preference might not depend solely on our rational judgement that familiarity might affect our decision making. Therefore, it would be a good idea to always think of the source of your preference before you make a big decision.  “Why do I like it? Is it really good for me or I’m just too familiar with it?”


Marin-Garcia, E., Ruiz-Vargas, J. M., & Kapur, N. (2013). Mere exposure effect can be elicited in transient global amnesia. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology,35(10), 1007-1014. doi:10.1080/13803395.2013.844774

Mitsuda, T., & Yoshioka, Y. (2017). Final sampling bias in haptic judgments: how final touch affects decision-making. Perception,47(1), 90-104. doi:10.1177/0301006617735003

Nuñez, R. (2018). College in the media: The relationship between repeated exposure and college expectations. Educational Media International,55(1), 1-14. doi:10.1080/09523987.2018.1439706

Ruggieri, S., & Boca, S. (2013). At the roots of product placement: the mere exposure Effect. Europe’s Journal of Psychology,9(2) 246-258. doi:10.1037/e562792013-006

Shettleworth, S. J. (1972). The role of novelty in learned avoidance of unpalatable ‘Prey’ by domestic chicks (Gallus Gallus). Animal Behaviour, 20(1), 29-35. doi:10.1016/s0003-3472(72)80170-2

Svenson, O., Salo, I., & van de Loo, K. (2007). Memories of real-life decisions. Memory, 15(2), 205–220. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658210701204787

Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9(2, Pt.2), 1-27. doi:10.1037/h0025848

Zizak, D. M., & Reber, A. S. (2004). Implicit preferences: The role(s) of familiarity in the structural mere exposure effect. Consciousness and Cognition,13(2), 336-362. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2003.12.003

  1. May 10th, 2018 at 19:59 | #1

    This post is really interesting, and really makes me think twice about the cravings I get whenever I see my favorite restaurants. This mere exposure effect is something that seems to be prevalent throughout advertising and I wonder how much it is used purposefully. I wonder if even farther than just being exposed to something, feeling a connection results in a stronger sense of familiarity and preference. This would make sense, given that a large majority of advertisements pushes the idea that whatever product it promotes is designed for the viewer or widespread throughout their social group. The large influence that this mere exposure effect has on our psyche is also interesting, as evidenced by the amnesia patients who displayed a mere exposure effect, or how even for individuals who don’t believe that they will be affected, an effect is seen. It could be interesting to see exactly by what cognitive processes the mere exposure effect affects us.

  2. May 13th, 2018 at 12:46 | #2

    @Ellison Lim
    Yes I think you’re right about familiarity. We like familiar items because familiarity-based activation is always automatic and automatic processes are generally faster and demand less effort. I think our preference for automatic processes contributes to the mere exposure effect. I agree with you that advertising is not only about mere exposure effect, though it’s a big aspect. The use of mere exposure effect is more about the quantity. For instance, when you see a iPhone ad everywhere on the street and on the Internet, you’ll gradually prefer iPhone to other phones. Sometimes it’s more about conformity, when you see, say, the students on the advertisements are all using iPads to take notes and think I probably should get one, too.

  3. May 16th, 2018 at 10:35 | #3

    Kai, great post. It really made me think about some of the decisions I have made regarding food choices in the past. In fact, just last night I was choosing between buying a Coca-Cola from the vending machine or a different soda. I have definitely been exposed to Coca-Cola more than any soda through advertising and family preference and in the end I decided to stick with the Coca-Cola.

    Your post also made me think about how the mere exposure effect relates to face recognition. More specifically, I wonder if the mere exposure effect can be used, in part, to explain the other race effect. When discussing the other race effect in class, we talked about how repeated exposure to a face allows the observer to generate a composite and therefore have better recognition for familiar or famous faces. Therefore, it appears as though the mere exposure effect could potentially explain the other race effect.

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