Home > Attention > 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

Sometimes when you hear a song for the first time you do not like it. The mere exposure effect may cause you to like it after hearing it so many times!

     When Party in the USA comes at a party, there is nothing stopping me. I know every word, every beat, and every guitar strum of 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 debut 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 prefer things that they are exposed to more often, compared to things that they have normal exposure to (Van Dessel, Mertens, Smith, & Houwer, 2019). 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.The mere exposure effect is used by artists, having their songs played on the radio repeatedly for people to develop positive feelings towards it, 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 do the same things over and over again, which eventually increases our liking if 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 and the mere exposure effect are closely tied. Attention describes the way we focus on our environment to collect information about what is going on around us. Attending or not attending to something is one of our first interactions with a stimulus and will determine the way that we process it. One model of attention defines it as having a limited capacity, which means that we can only pay attention to a few things at a time. If you think about it, it would be so hard to pay attention to everything going on in a room around you and process it all at once. The things that we actually attend to, tend to be processed at a higher level because we are allocating more of our processing skills to one thing rather than multiple. This means that the more we pay attention to something, the more of our attentional resources we can dedicate to understanding and processing the information for meaning. When we process things for meaning, we have to go beyond the surface features of the stimuli and this process often takes time. However, after we have processed something once, the easier it becomes to process in the future because the steps of processing it become more automatic in our brains, taking up a whole lot less our limited attention. 

     Attention can relate to the mere exposure effect through the processing fluency effect. The processing fluency effect is the preference for things that are easy to process. In other words, we like things that are easy to process and that don’t take up our attentional capacity (Duke, Fiacconi, & Köhler 2014). Because of our limited capacity, our brains like when we are not taking up so much of it. Like I mentioned before, the more exposure we have to do something, the more we have paid attention to it, and the easier it becomes to process. This makes us like something more because we can process it quickly and effortlessly (Yagi, Ikoma, Kikuchi).The mere exposure effect occurs when repeated exposures to something creates a preference towards it, but the intermediate step in that is how it is processed by our attention. After repeated exposures and time to process the information about something, we are more inclined to feel as though it is familiar. These feelings of familiarity lead us to preference. 

     To summarize, the mere exposure effect depends a lot on our attention and processing, If we pay attention to something for the first time, it takes up alot of our attentional space, but the more exposure we have to it the easier it becomes to process. The processing fluency effect is when we feel like we can process something easily, we like it better and it is the mediator between attention and preference in the mere exposure effect. It ties together the development of automaticity and ease of processing from our attentional processing, and preference. 

Cognitive biases like the mere exposure effect can influence our decisions and behaviors and sometimes we are unaware of it!

     Now you have learned about how the mere exposure effect works in our brain, and maybe you can even think of your preferences that are a result of it. Why does it matter? The mere exposure effect can explain different preferences that we have and make us question why we prefer certain things. Is it because we actually like them, or because we have been exposed to them so much? Afterall, is Party in The USA really a piece of musical genius and artistry, or have we just listened to it too many times? Song preference is only a minor implication that the mere exposure effect has had on my life. After learning about the mere exposure effect and how the processing fluency effect relates to it, it has made me realize how these psychological phenomena can have larger impacts and have real external consequences in our lives. Not all of our preferences stem from the mere exposure effect, but if you think about the effect that our preferences have on our lives, you can see that our preferences guide the decisions we make and can even change our behavior. A psychological phenomenon that most people don’t even know about can be the root reason why a person travels across the country to see a concert of their favorite band, or why someone eats the same fattening sandwich every day even if it is not that good. What effects has it had on your life?




Duke, D., Fiacconi, C. M., & Köhler, S. (2014). Parallel effects of processing fluency and positive affect on familiarity-based recognition decisions for faces. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 328. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00328

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 Psychology82(3), 472 481.https://doi.org/10.1037/h0028372

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 Bulletin45(3), 447–460.https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167218789065

Wang, M.-Y., & Lee, K.-W. (2012). Encoding fluency and the mere exposure effect. Chinese Journal of  Psychology54(4), 561–        577.

Wilson, W. R. (1979). Feeling more than we can know: Exposure effects without learning. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology37(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. Petty (Eds.), Attitudes: Their            structure, function, and consequences. (pp. 143–168).New York, NY: Psychology Press.


Image References:

Meme of Rebecca Black. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://consumerologyblog.wordpress.com/2016/11/11/so-you-love-your-boyfriend-after-week-1-falsemere-exposure-effect/#jp-carousel-327

Cognitive Biases in Business. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://images.app.goo.gl/AU4aoq2mWZuuepap6

  1. December 9th, 2019 at 21:07 | #1

    Have there been any studies that demonstrate a negative correlation between the Big 5 personality trait of openness to new experiences and the extent to which the mere exposure effect manifests? I would also be interested in an experiment testing for a correlation between the mere exposure effect, for music specifically, and self-reported genre preference.

  2. December 16th, 2019 at 14:49 | #2

    The second I saw Party in the USA in the opening line, I just HAD to keep reading. It’s interesting to think how the mere exposure effect is so relevant in our everyday lives. I really like how you found a way to connect an abstract psychological phenomenon with a theme that is so applicable to our generation. One question I had while reading more about the mere exposure effect was: is there a certain point where the mere exposure effect starts to do the opposite? At what point do you get “sick” of a song or a person from listening to it too much or spending too much time with a certain person. If I had to guess, it may have something to do with the lack of novelty or uniqueness to the song. When we hear a song for the first time, it requires a significant amount of cognitive resources because it is brand new. We focus all of our attention to it and therefore we enjoy every individual part of it. However, over time, we get more accustomed and we don’t use as many attentional resources to listen to it which leads us to focus on the song less and not fully enjoy it. It would be interesting to see if there are any scientific studies on such a phenomena.

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