#24 Mere Exposure Effect: Why turning up is half the battle

What is it that makes retro fashion take off, and is the Eurovision completely rigged? In this episode, Mel and Dan explore what happens when we see, hear or experience the same thing over and over again.

Mel: 00:19 Hi and welcome to Bad Decisions.

Dan: 00:21 The podcast that helps us understand why we choose what we choose.

Mel: 00:23 Why we think what we think.

Dan: 00:25 And how to exploit this stuff for fun and commercial gain.

Mel: 00:27 I'm Doctor Mel Weinberg. I'm a performance psychologist.

Dan: 00:29 And I'm Dan Monheit, co-founder of Hardhat.

Mel: 00:41 So obviously this is a podcast about different heuristics, right?

Dan: 00:44 Yeah. That's what we're here for.

Mel: 00:46 Technically that's what we do. And we've been talking about all sorts of different heuristics and ways that we come about making decisions. And some of them have gotten quite complex. We've talked about all sorts of different things, but most of them have to do with things like social conformity, classical conditioning - how to make things more inherently attractive, right? And I feel like in all of this complexity and us trying to sound really smart about this stuff, we've sort of overlooked something really quite simple.

Dan: 01:17 Okay. So, what? We're going to wind it back? We're going back to basics?

Mel: 01:18 We're going back to basics and we're going back to the idea of simple exposure, mere exposure, if you will.

Dan: 01:26 If I will. I will.

Mel: 01:29 The Mere Exposure Effect was not even called a heuristic originally. It's an effect that describes our tendency to prefer things simply because we've been exposed to it repeatedly.

Dan: 01:41 Just hang on one sec. Did we just drop what the topic for today's thing is without any fanfare whatsoever?

Mel: 01:46 We did.

Dan: 01:46 Can we cue some fanfare for the Mere Exposure Effect, please?

Dan: 01:54 Adequately fan-fared.

Mel: 01:56 The Mere Exposure Effect was introduced to us in around the 1960s by a Polish social psychologist, Robert Zajonc.

Dan: 02:06 Can I just say before we get too deep into the Mere Exposure Effect, as a title of a heuristic, I like that it doesn't-

Mel: 02:14 Doesn't oversell itself.

Dan: 02:14 Yeah, it doesn't promise too much. It's just literally going to do what it says on the tin.

Mel: 02:19 Yeah, it's like "We know we're not a crazy amazing heuristic. It's just Mere Exposure Effect." Very subtle, unassuming, mere.

Dan: 02:26 Yeah. The mere, good looking enough husband.

Mel: 02:30 That's all. That's all we're talking about.

Dan: 02:32 Yeah, it's a humble heuristic. I like it.

Mel: 02:34 So, Zajonc back in the 1960s, way before a lot of the more contemporary behavioural economics stuff was happening. The research that he was basing his whole effect on, I guess we'd say a little bit basic, maybe, in terms of some of the research that we do now.

Dan: 02:53 The guy's a pioneer.

Mel: 02:54 And remember, it's the '60s, and so there's a lot of research on animals. Before we had real ethics.

Dan: 03:00 The '60s ... what a bunch of savages.

Mel: 03:01 This is Poland in the '60s. So, one of the early studies that is cited with regard to the Mere Exposure Effect has to do with experimenters playing tones to unhatched chicks.

Dan: 03:14 Okay. So, I was bracing for something pretty bad from an animal cruelty perspective. Playing music to eggs ..okay? That's alright.

Mel: 03:21 Yeah, playing music to unhatched chicks. And they were playing ... Music might be a bit generous. They were playing tones of different frequencies.

Dan: 03:31 Poland's greatest hits of the 1960s.

Mel: 03:31 One of the tones would be repeated more frequently than the other. And then, when the chicks were hatched, they were assessing which tone the chicks preferred. And granted, I have no idea how they were doing this.

Dan: 03:42 Yeah, what are chicks buying in iTunes?

Mel: 03:44 I'm assuming that they're doing some sort of little chicken dance to one of the tones, and the other one they're just going, "No, I don't like this." But however they assessed it, they established that chicks had a preference for the tone that they'd heard more frequently when they were unhatched.

Dan: 04:01 So, DJ Zajonc in the Chicken Club knows how to get the dance floor pumping! He knows which tracks are the bangers and which ones are just going to clear the floor.

Mel: 04:13 That's what was happening, right?

Dan: 04:14 I wish I could have been there to see this happening.

Mel: 04:18 Another study that Zajonc cites in 1968, I'll actually read to you the story because it's better when it's read. It says, "A mysterious student has been attending a class at Oregon State University for the past two months enveloped in a big black bag."

Dan: 04:37 I'm imagining, "They had an exchange student?" It's like-

Mel: 04:40 There's a new kid in class, but he's enveloped in a big black bag.

Dan: 04:44 He's wearing a giant black bag.

Mel: 04:46 Yeah, "Only his bare feet show. Each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 11:00 AM, the black bag sits on a small table near the back of the classroom."

Dan: 04:54 What?!

Mel: 04:55 "The professor of the class only knows the identity of the person inside. None of the 20 students in the class do."

Dan: 05:01 How does he get into the classroom? Does it have a little mailbox eyehole cut out?

Mel: 05:05 He must, can you imagine?

Dan: 05:08 It's like, "I really wanted to put him in a mascot costume, but I had $1.30, and so all I could do was buy a garbage bag."

Mel: 05:14 Find a big black bag. Research funds were not going very far.

Mel: 05:19 Here's what happened. So, he's coming into the class-

Dan: 05:21 Stumbling over tables.

Mel: 05:23 -and at the start-he's not talking, he's not engaging, he's just literally sitting there. And obviously at the start, everyone's looking at him going, "Dude, this is a bit weird. What's going on here?" Right? But the professor's acting as if he's completely normal.

Dan: 05:33 I just would love to have been in the brainstorm when they were coming up with ideas for this experiment. It's like, "What about we take a student and we put them in a black bag and just sit them up the back of the room and see what happens?" And what happened?

Mel: 05:46 At the start, obviously people think this guy's a bit weird. They were approaching him with a bit of defensiveness and hostility, as you would because everybody's dressed normally and this guy's come in enveloped in a big black bag. But after a couple of classes, as he keeps attending, people's attitudes towards him change. And his classmates started to actually have an affinity for him. And actually, they even liked him.

Dan: 06:08 What?!

Mel: 06:08 And they acted a lot more friendly towards him.

Dan: 06:09 This is bazar. This was also in Poland in the '60s?

Mel: 06:11 To be fair, Zajonc was onto something. He just maybe didn't have, I guess the integrity of the research to really back it up.

Dan: 06:21 But just like a manikin maybe, or like a pet? There's a lot of options, really, rather than putting a guy in a black bag for three days a week. Can we do a followup story and try and find that kid?

Mel: 06:33 Should we just repeat the experiment?

Dan: 06:36 I want to find the guy and just see how his life has panned out for him. "So, people liked me better when I was covered in a black bag."

Mel: 06:42 Maybe a side project for you and I to explore. But black bag guy, if you're out there, reveal yourself. We'd love to hear from you.

Mel: 06:50 We can think about why this happens, I mean, it's basic, right? This is the Mere Exposure Effect.

Dan: 06:58 Totally, totally basic. This is why I wear a black bag Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. It's bloody obvious.

Mel: 07:04 Any time you're exposed to something for the first time, you're wired to see it as a threat. It could be dangerous to you. For all your brain knows, and remember, we've talked before about how your brain is fundamentally driven to keep us alive. Anything that is new or that you have not encountered before is going to be seen as threatening. So, you respond to black bag guy with hostility, right?

Mel: 07:27 With each repeated exposure, you learn, "Hang on. This thing, this black bag guy, or whatever new stimulus it is, and I can actually coexist in this world. So, this thing is in fact no threat to my survival whatsoever. In which case, this is safe to engage." And you start to sort of become more curious about it and become more interested in it and effectively like it more.

Dan: 07:48 Yeah, and next thing you know, you and Snoop Baggy Bag are just hanging out.

Mel: 07:53 Dancing at the chicken club.

Dan: 07:55 Getting milkshakes. Wow.

Mel: 07:57 It's all happening. So, it took until 1992 for people to develop a more real life, I guess, version of the black bag experiment. And they thought, "How can we try this a different way?" And they went back into college classes where all good psychology studies happen.

Mel: 08:15 And what they did was they chose four women who were not at all involved in the college, but were sort of college age, maybe from a different college. They wanted them to be completely unknown to the actual people attending the class. They had four different women who were rated equally by others on their attractiveness, all those sorts of things. And they popped them into the classroom, but at different times or for different amounts of time.

Mel: 08:39 So, for example, one of these women might have attended the class five times, one of them attended 10 times, one of them attended 15 times, and one of them attended not at all.

Dan: 08:48 In bags? Or just in their normal wear?

Mel: 08:49 No, just regular outfits.

Mel: 08:51 But they'd sit up the back of the class and they weren't participating in the class. They weren't really talking to anybody, just sitting by themselves. At the end of the sort of experimental time, what they did was they presented photographs of these four people to all of the people in the class, and they asked them to rate them all on their likeability.

Dan: 09:07 Rate for hotness.

Mel: 09:07 And what they found was that the person who had been exposed to them the most, so the one who'd attended 15 times was rated as much more likeable than the ones that they'd seen less frequently.

Dan: 09:17 I mean, this is great. Look, if you are not the most attractive person in the world, and I'm going to put my hand up and say, look, I'm probably not top 10 in the world, this is very encouraging. Like, if I just keep turning up, people are just going to find me more and more attractive.

Mel: 09:31 They're just going to like you. You don't even have to talk.

Dan: 09:33 Maybe I shouldn't talk at all.

Mel: 09:34 I think that's the cool thing for me about this effect is that a lot of the other effects have to do with people interacting or engaging with the stimulus. And this is mere exposure. Like, you don't need to have spoken to this thing, you don't need to have interacted in any sort of way. It's just for some reason that when this thing or when this person enters your perceptual awareness, and if it does so repeatedly, you're going to like it.

Dan: 09:57 So really at a fundamental level here, what we're saying is the more often you are exposed to a thing, the more familiar it becomes, the more open and likeable you might feel towards it.

Mel: 10:08 Yeah.

Dan: 10:08 Which is wonderful for advertising! Because basically, that's what we're trying to do, right?

Mel: 10:12 Yep.

Dan: 10:13 But before we get into the guts of advertising, some of the other things that come to mind for this are the ability for cover songs, you know? So, a song that was done 30 years earlier to come back, and it's instantly racing up the charts because everybody's preconditioned to like it.

Dan: 10:28 I think about retro fashion at the moment in the sneaker world. Like, these Filas that were massive in the '90s have just blown up and they're everywhere. And it's like, people were ... I guess people have been pre-exposed. Like, if you need, let's say 1,000 exposures to like something, if people already had 980 exposures back while they were growing up .. then all you've got to do is just top them up with the extra 20. And so, all of a sudden, I start seeing why cover songs and retro fashion and styles and retro brands can come back so quickly and with such ferocity because we're kind of like ... the mere exposure is pre-baked.

Mel: 11:06 Yeah, it's already in there. I'm actually glad you took us to the music industry because I do have another research study that I stumbled across when I was looking up the Mere Exposure Effect

Dan: 11:13 More research. Yes.

Mel: 11:19 It's just from last year. It's a 2018 study about mere exposure effects in the real world. And what Georgios Abakoumkin, and I'm sure I haven't pronounced that properly, but what he did was he looked at Euro Vision. We have some Euro Vision fans out there. I'm sure we've got some great Euro Vision music.

Dan: 11:52 I'm sure we have Euro Vision music. I wish you could see the Euro Vision costumes.

Mel: 11:55 So, with Euro Vision, I'm not a big Euro Vision fan, I must admit.

Dan: 12:00 Yes, you are. Maybe you just need to watch it more.

Mel: 12:03 Maybe.

Dan: 12:03 That's what I'm learning today.

Mel: 12:04 Maybe that's what would happen. But the voting system and the way that you sort of get through, my understanding at least, is that countries or performances will compete, and so there will be exposure to the audience. And the top 10, say, who were voted in will make it through to the finals. But in the finals, they are met by the top 10 from the previous year. And so, when you get to the finals, you've got a naturally existing Mere Exposure Effect, where you've got half of the contestants who have been heard before and half of them who you're hearing for the first time.

Dan: 12:38 Yeah, I can see where this is going to end.

Mel: 12:39 Yeah, we can look at the voting patterns. And what actually happens is that when you account for other factors, like the actual quality of the song, which can be questionable when it comes to Euro Vision, the songs that were performed, or that were exposed more, like performed twice to the audience, placed higher than those that were only performed once. So, this was between the years of 2008 and 2015.

Mel: 13:06 And this just gets me thinking, "Why don't I get to watch this sort of stuff and count things and do this sort of research?"

Dan: 13:11 Yeah, you've wasted your career, basically, not watching Euro Vision.

Dan: 13:14 I think this Mere Exposure Effect is as basic as it is profound. It's like so obvious that the more often you see something or the more often you're exposed to it, the more open you are to it. Like, I notice this even in my own news feed where I'll see an article once and I won't click on it. And I'll see it twice, I won't click on it. By the third time I see it, it's like, "Maybe I actually am kind of curious about this." I feel it has worn me down. It's so fundamental, so basic, but also so profound. Like, maybe we've just over-engineered everything. And really, all we need to do is just-

Mel: 13:44 Merely expose.

Dan: 13:45 ... merely expose. Yeah.

Mel: 13:45 Maybe that's as basic as it gets.

Dan: 13:47 I mean, one other thought on this whole retro thing, and I've sort of watched on with interest at the Pokemon Go craze from a couple of years ago. I think a lot of people really misinterpreted what happened there. So, there's this augmented reality app that came out where you got to use your phone to try and hunt for Pokemon characters around the cities that you lived in. And I think a lot of people looked at that and decided that the success here was it was a really good application of the technology, that augmented reality and gamification and all these other buzzwords are what had come to play there.

Dan: 14:16 And it would seem to me that the bit that people really missed out on understanding the success of Pokemon Go, was the pre-exposure or the pre mere exposure of all these people in their 30s now had watched this show in their 10s and teens, so were pre-exposed to like this. And so, it wasn't just putting together a cool new phone application. It was like putting a cool new phone application together for a thing that millions of people had already been exposed to and built favourability for 20 years earlier.

Mel: 14:49 So, you're capitalising on the pre-exposure.

Dan: 14:50 On pre-baked exposure.

Mel: 14:53 Yeah, so you've got to plant the seed early for this stuff, right?

Dan: 14:54 Yeah. And I wonder if in a lot of ways, the window for this has closed, right? Because we've got the last generation that grew up, at least in Australia, with three commercial TV channels and two newspapers, right? And where we had people at scale exposed to the same jingles, the same TV shows, the same cartoons. And I think about the way kids consume media today, and there's this infinitely fragmented landscape where people just watch what they want when they want from all over the world. And that idea of having a mass strata of the population all pre-exposed to the same thing at the same time, I think is finished. So, I think retro ... trying to retro stuff in 20 years is going to be hard because you're not going to have that baseline that we have to play with today.

Mel: 15:38 Yeah, unless you create it now.

Dan: 15:40 Yeah, but what I'm saying is it's hard to create now because that mass exposure of a whole population to the same TV show or the same jingle or the same message just isn't possible like it used to be.

Mel: 15:51 Fair enough. Give us some tips for advertising because I've got plenty more to talk about in regards to the Mere Exposure Effect, but give us some practical stuff.

Dan: 15:58 Okay, cool. So, the really obviously thing with this, is that we just need to get our brand in front of people. So, when you're an advertiser, you are paying for every exposure, whether people understand that it is from your brand or not from your brand. I think the biggest takeaway from this is that there is no point in making stuff that is not easily associated with your brand. Because mere exposure to your brand will build likeability. And so, core to that is understanding what we call either distinctive assets or brand code or some small collection of unique attributes that are very easily identifiable as your brand. So, that might be shapes, it might be words, it might be font, it might be tones, logos and typefaces, all of that sort of stuff, so that people immediately know, "That was a piece of communication from that brand."

Mel: 16:49 It's actually interesting how we've talked about things that you can see or people or tones that play to chicks. But one of Zajonc's early studies actually looked at Chinese characters. So, for people that had no exposure to Chinese symbols or characters, etc., and they would show the different characters. And they found the same thing that people actually had a preference for the characters that they'd seen more times. Even though it meant nothing to them, they didn't understand it. And so, it's just a visual image of something. It's just a character.

Dan: 17:20 Yeah, and so there is no question in my mind that we would pick brands and we would pick stocks and we would pick all sorts of other things in life for no objective reason other than they're more familiar. And so, if I think about some applications of this in the real world, if you think about some of the most iconic brands that we have, whether that's in the automotive world or in fashion or in fast food or in food and beverage, their logos and their key visual distinctive assets stay the same, you know? The Coke logo looks the same. The Nike swoosh looks the same, and you just get exposed to it over and over and over again. And there's no question when you see a Nike logo whether that is a logo for Nike or from somebody else.

Dan: 17:59 Sometimes one of the places where this goes wrong is as marketers, we get bored. And we like to create new brands and sub-brands and we like to update our look and feel to stay more contemporary. And I think we forget that we get bored and move on much quicker than our consumers do. And actually, what the great brands of the world show us is that if we just hold the line, and just keep using our distinctive assets early over and over again, it's going to be far more successful than chopping and changing.

Dan: 18:25 A great example of this at the moment is Coca Cola, who's brand architecture really spiraled out of control where they had sub-brands and different products that looked completely different. In the last 12 months, they've brought everything back together under this one Coke. So, every can is red, every bottle basically looks the same. And there's maybe a 15% variation. There's a colour stripe at the top, so the normal Coke is red and Coke Zero has got a little black strip and Diet Coke has a little silver strip at the top. But 85% of the can or the bottle is exactly the same for every product, because you're just getting exposed over and over and over again to the same visual assets.

Mel: 19:04 One of the cool things about mere exposure for me is ... and something that makes it different to a lot of the other heuristics that we've talked about, is how we don't even have to be aware that it's happening to us. Like, I mentioned before how we don't even have to interact with it, or we don't have to ...

Dan: 19:20 You can be an egg.

Mel: 19:24 You could be an egg and it still works. But there's some research that shows that the Mere Exposure Effect occurs subliminally as well, which of course is super important for advertising. To speak to that a little bit, there was a study by Bornstein, Leone, and Galley in 1987. And basically, they had people doing a task that was completely unrelated, just something that was sufficient enough to capture their attention. And say they're doing it on this old style computer screen. That would be sort of, I guess, a modern take on it.

Mel: 19:50 So, imagine you're doing something on a computer screen and you're not aware of what's going on because you think you're just doing this task. But actually, what's happening is that you're getting flashed photos of faces that sit on the screen for about four milliseconds. So, not even enough for it to sort of register cognitively. And some of these ... There's different faces getting shown, but some of them are getting shown more than others, right?

Mel: 20:13 At the end of you doing this task, when they ask, "Did anything weird happen? Like, did you notice anything?" And you're like, "No. I wasn't actually doing anything .. "

Dan: 20:22 "There's just a guy in a black bag sitting up the back of the room, but other than that, everything's normal."

Mel: 20:27 No, but this is the bag! It's subliminal, right? So, you actually aren't even aware that anything is happening to you, that you're being exposed to anything. And still, when you're asked afterwards which of those ... you know, to rate the attractiveness of these faces, you're going to rate the ones that were flashed more times as more likeable. How crazy is that? You're not even aware of this in the slightest. You have no idea this is even happening to you. This is scary when it comes to advertising. Well, for consumers.

Dan: 20:49 Yeah. So, for me, I mean, straight away two things jump out about this. One is that there's a lot of bemoaning in the industry about how a lot of the digital platforms like Facebook and YouTube will count an ad view as three seconds or five seconds or two seconds. And it's outrageous-

Mel: 21:06 People haven't actually viewed it, right?

Dan: 21:06 Yeah. But what we're going to see is in two seconds, you only need four milliseconds for somebody to subconsciously notice what the brand is or what the image is. The rest of it, you can just stretch out.

Dan: 21:18 I'm not saying this is the cure for advertising. I mean, obviously we want to build emotional connections with people and we want to be able to tell great stories. But just the exposure, the mere exposure is important. And that is a thing that you can do if you get your key distinctive assets in within the first one second of the ad.

Dan: 21:35 The other thing that this brings to mind is what a dangerous slippery slope stalking is. If you kind of like someone and then you look at this heuristic- it's like, "if I look at them more from across the street in a tree with binoculars ..."

Mel: 21:50 I'm going to like them more. But the other side is if you just walk past them, you don't even have to interact with them, you don't have to say anything, just creepily happen to walk past them more than a couple of times, you will become more familiar to them. And then, they actually like you. This is not how we promote going about meeting new people ...

Dan: 22:08 But, there is hope for stalkers.

Mel: 22:10 We don't endorse stalking.

Dan: 22:11 The problem with stalking-

Mel: 22:11 But we can understand.

Dan: 22:13 The problem with stalking is that it's one way. What you need is a mutual stalking appreciation and everyone's just going to fall deeply in love with one another.

Mel: 22:19 You know, thinking like that ... Well, not thinking like that. But in sort of the same vein, you can see how online dating apps have sort of taken on the Mere Exposure Effect to a degree. And whether they've done it on purpose or not, I'm not sure. I'm sure they have because there's smart people behind them. But you know those apps where you're shown literally just a face of somebody who you've never seen before, usually? And you're given the option to like it or reject it, one or the other.

Mel: 22:45 I think at the start what was happening with this was that you'd just go through the pool, right? And you'd just go through the pool of options, like, dislike, whatever. But the apps became a bit more clever, and they started actually repeating some of the ones that you'd already rejected, right? This is mere exposure. You have no idea about this person, you have no interaction with this person, but you're seeing them more. And they're banking on the fact that because of the Mere Exposure Effect, at some point you're going to go, "Yeah now I like them."

Dan: 23:10 Yeah, or you're going, "Wow, this pool is a lot shallower than I anticipated. I can't believe I'm seeing this guy again. I just swiped no four people ago. Maybe I should give him a shot."

Mel: 23:18 Either way, there are clearly a lot of applications of this in the real world.

Dan: 23:21 So, for brands, really, it is as simple and as complex as getting your brand code, your key distinctive assets in front of people as often as possible. And this idea from a few years ago that maybe we should just make great content and not actually tell people that it's from our brand. If your objective is just to entertain the people of the world, go for it. But if your objective is to sell some stuff, make sure people know what brand it's from, and make sure they know early. What about as just normal people going about life? How can ... Other than a mutual stalking appreciation, where can this take us?

Mel: 23:53 I think this is about how we go about choosing new things or trying new things, right? Because we've got to remember that because of the Mere Exposure Effect or because of the way that we're just fundamentally wired, the first time we're exposed to something, we're probably not going to like it. So, when it comes to trying a new food, for example, first time you taste it, you're probably going to be a bit hesitant. Try it more than once.

Dan: 24:11 I think this is the thing with kids when you start introducing food. You're meant to make them try it like three or four or five times because they're just not going to like it the first time.

Mel: 24:19 Yeah. And we're not supposed to. It could be dangerous, it could be disgusting to us. So, what we actually need to do is commit to trying something new more than once. I'm not sure how many times is the right number, but it has to be more than once because the first time, chances are we're not going to like it.

Dan: 24:36 Right. So, if you decide, "I would like to be a more sophisticated version of myself. I'm going to go to the ballet." Once is not adequate. I must commit to going-

Mel: 24:45 Get a season ticket.

Dan: 24:46 Season ticket, go at least three times, and then make a call on if you like it or don't like it.

Mel: 24:50 Sure.

Dan: 24:51 What have we learnt here?

Mel: 24:53 I think at the end of the day, what we come back to is that if you were to walk in somewhere, your best chances of being liked are to envelope yourself in a big black bag because the world would be a much better place.

Dan: 25:05 Not immediately, but you need to envelope yourself in a big black plastic bag and turn up for a whole semester, and eventually people will love you.

Mel: 25:13 Yeah, just stick it out.

Dan: 25:14 All right, life advice from Doctor Mel.

Mel: 25:16 Sounds good, right?

Dan: 25:17 All right. Awesome. So, Mere Exposure Effect, just seeing it more, you're going to like it.

Mel: 25:21 Just the tendency for us to like something just purely because ... merely because we've been exposed to it.

Dan: 25:25 Yeah, brands, get your stuff out there early and consistently. People, go to the ballet at least three times before you decide you don't like it.

Mel: 25:31 Sounds like a prescription.

Dan: 25:31 Is that all right? Yeah. Awesome. All right. Catch you next time.

Mel: 25:53 See you.