Home > Attention, Cognitive Bias, Memory, Pattern Recognition > Read this a FEW times… I Promise You’ll like it: The Mere Exposure Effect At Work

Read this a FEW times… I Promise You’ll like it: The Mere Exposure Effect At Work

Why do you really like your favorite song?

     When Party in the USA comes at a party, there is nothing stopping me. I know every word, every beat, and every guitar strum to that song. The energy in the room is wild, and I can confidently say that everyone is enjoying themselves, maybe not as much as I am, but nonetheless, enjoying themselves. I mean, what else can you expect from a 2009 banger that has been played on repeat since its debiew on Disney Channel? But what happens when the kid on AUX, switches to one of his soundcloud mystery raps that no one knows? I find myself enjoying the time much less, and everyone seemingly starts to mingle instead of dance. Why would Party in the USA have better success at a party over a new soundcloud rap? Cognitive psychology and the mere exposure effect can explain this.

     The mere exposure effect is a psychological phenomenon where people tend to like and prefer things better that they are exposed to more often (Pieter Van Dessel, Gaëtan Mertens, Colin Tucker Smith, & Jan De Houwer). People are more likely to be in favor of certain things that they have repeated exposure to and are more familiar with, even if they are unaware of it. This can explain why Party in the USA is such a hit at parties compared to the soundcloud rap. It is simply because the song has been heard so many times and everyone is so familiar with it. The mere exposure effect is used by artists having their songs played over and over again on the radio for people to like it better, by brands in their constant advertising to make you want to buy a product more, and can even explain why you like the person that sits next to you in two classes every day over somebody else. Reflecting on this phenomenon, it is easy to see why this can be true. In general, we do not like to go to unfamiliar places, spend time with unfamiliar people or put ourselves in unfamiliar situations. The comfort of familiarity drives us to be in the same places, same type of situations and hang out with the same people, and the more often we do it, the more we prefer it. Investigating the mere exposure effect can tell us why familiarity is so important to how we judge something and make us realize how influential it can really be in our lives. So how does it really work? 

Attention, pattern recognition and memory are three important topics that are interconnected that play a big role in the mere exposure effect. Attention describes the manner in which one takes in stimulus, and the degree of focus that one has on their environment. There are many different ways to look at attention, but I will discuss it in more general terms. The first time you heard Party in the USA you may not have paid attention to it, but over time as the song is played more and more on the radio, the amount of attention you pay becomes greater, simply because of the increased time spent listening to it. Because you are attending to it more, it becomes more salient in your cognitive attentional space. In other words, it is at the forefront of your attention allowing you to be able to recall it more easily. This is where you might see yourself knowing the lyrics better or starting to actually enjoy the song. 

Our mind processes and preferences go hand in hand!

     One study shows this connection between attention and the mere exposure effect. Participants were presented with different shapes, one green and one red. They were asked to only pay attention to the red ones, and then recall the shapes after being presented. People were more likely to remember the shape that they were attending to, but most importantly, would rate it as more pleasant than the other shape (Yagi, Ikoma, Kikuchi). This is evidence that supports the idea that after repeated exposures, the more attention is paid and the more pleasant our judgement of something is. Attention is the  base level of the mere exposure effect, branching off into pattern recognition and memory. 

     Before you can even decide if you like the song or not, you need to be able to point out the different aspects of it that you like or dislike. Pattern recognition is the way that our brains analyze things in our environment in order to recognize them. This means that we need to process the different features of the song, to build our mental representation of it in our minds. In other words, the different characteristics of the song that we analyze create the “image” of it in our minds, and after pattern recognizing it every time, the way we look at it will be more positive (Zajonc 1980). The dichotic listening task, a task where participants are played a message in each ear and are told to pay attention to only one, can explain connections between attention and pattern recognition with the mere exposure effect. Participants were played a melody in one ear, and told to attend to a message in the other. This test was done several times with different melodies being played. Even though they were not fully attending to melody, when asked to recognize the melodies played, people recognized the melodies played correctly and even rated them as more pleasant. This suggests that the more something is recognized, the better we remember it, the more familiar we are with it, and that the mere exposure effect can have an effect even when we are not attending to it fully (e.g it would still work when we heard the song constantly when we were shopping at stores or eating at restaurants)(W.R. Wilson 1975).

     Attending to something over and over again, such as a repeated song, and being forced to recognize it each time you hear it, causes it to be processed in our minds at a deeper level. This means that it is able to be stored in our memory. Since memory can be defined as how we store the information and experiences that we get, it is an important part of the mere exposure effect (Zajonc 1980). The more the song is processed the better memory we have of it. Even us deciding if we like the song at first, which can be considered deeper processing, influences how it is stored in our memory. In one study, there were three experimental groups of participants where one group was told to count the amount of letters in words on a list, one was told to keep track of the presence of the letter “e,” and the other group was told to rate the words based off of pleasantness. Even when the other two groups were told to attend carefully, or were warned that they would have to recall the words, the group that remembered the words the best were the ones rating it off of pleasantness. This is because the words were processed deeply and for meaning rather than surface level aspects of the words (Hyde & Jenkins 1969). This supports the idea that the deeper level of processing there is of the stimuli, the more able we are to remember it. The more you retrieve a memory, and the deeper it is encoded, the stronger memory we have of it, and the more familiar it is(Zajonc 1980). The whole idea of the mere exposure effect is the impact of increased familiarity leading to stronger preferences. Because we feel so comfortable with the stimulus after it is processed and retrieved after repeated exposures, this is associated with our more positive attitudes towards it. 

     Familiarity is the main idea of why the mere exposure effect works, and attention, pattern recognition, and memory all play a part in increasing its familiarity. Like I said before, as humans we like familiarity, and dislike being unfamiliar with things. If you think about it, we use familiarity as a survival technique which can connect to why we like things better based off of it. If our ancestors tried new plants and animals for every meal, they might have died as a result of something that they didn’t know about it, like if it was poisonous. It would lead them to try to find the same types of food, simply because it was familiar to them. They knew how it would affect them, choosing it would increase their chance of survival, and the food would become increasingly pleasant. This is the same with the mere exposure effect, because if something is familiar, we increase exposure ourselves, doing the same things every day, eating with the same people every day and other things simply because these repeated exposures influence our preference.

     Why does the mere exposure effect even matter? Of course it is the reason why I still love Party in the USA 10 years later,

Have you ever noticed who is in more than one of your classes?

but there are many other examples of it that influence our everyday lives. If someone is in all your classes, you see them a lot more often than someone who is not in your classes or lives in another dorm. The mere exposure effect would be at work here, making it more likely for you to have a crush on someone who is in your classes or lives next to you, simply because you are exposed to them more often than others, and would prefer them better. Another example of this could help you. Because of the mere exposure effect, even going to your professors office hours more often can make them like you more, and maybe even get you a good grade!! So why don’t you try it out, read my blog a few more times and see how you like it!!   





Hyde, T. S., & Jenkins, J. J. (1969). Differential effects of incidental tasks on the organization of 

     recall of a list of highly associated words. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 82(3), 


Van Dessel, P., Mertens, G., Smith, C. T., & De Houwer, J. (2019). Mere Exposure Effects on

     Implicit Stimulus Evaluation: The Moderating Role of Evaluation Task, Number of 

     Stimulus Presentations, and Memory for Presentation Frequency. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(3), 447–460.


Wang, M.-Y., & Lee, K.-W. (2012). Encoding fluency and the mere exposure effect. Chinese 

     Journal of Psychology, 54(4), 561–577. Retrieved 



Wilson, W. R. (1979). Feeling more than we can know: Exposure effects without learning. 

     Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(6), 811–821. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.37.6.811

Zajonc, R. B. (2008). Feeling and thinking: Preferences need no inferences. In R. H. Fazio & R. 

  1. Petty (Eds.), Attitudes: Their structure, function, and consequences. (pp. 143–168). 

     New York, NY: Psychology Press. Retrieved 





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