The Joy of Repetition

Does Familiarity Lead to Honest Enjoyment?

Please open & play this while reading — background music.

Out of curiosity and in preparation for an upcoming concert, I decided to purchase the opening band’s newest record. Within a couple of weeks, I had listened to this album front-to-back more than a handful of times and had familiarized myself with the lead singer’s gritty and damaging, yet soft and calming vocal range, which paired appropriately with the rest of the band’s accompaniment.

After their live performance, however, I left scratching my head. The vocal-to-instrument mixing featured the lead singer’s grittiness far more prominently than the rest of the band, creating less head-banging and more head-aches.

This experience led to a conversation with a friend, explaining my enjoyment for the opening band’s latest album offering while showing disdain for their live performance. My friend mused:

“It’s interesting… how if you listen to something long enough, you begin to enjoy it.”

That led me to think: Did I genuinely enjoy this music, or had I merely become familiar with it? And if familiarity does lead to enjoyment, should it apply to the rest of my life?

In one quick online search, I was able to track down three studies related to these questions, each involving repetition, familiarity, and enjoyment. The first pertains to the appreciation of music, the second to context and language within movies, and the third to Taco Bell cravings.

  1. In a study published by the Public Library of Science,Music and Emotions in the Brain: Familiarity Matters,” correlation between familiarity in the brain and appreciation of certain kinds of music was researched. Through an fMRI experiment, brain activation data revealed “broad emotion-related limbic and paralimbic regions as well as the reward circuitry were significantly more active for familiar relative to unfamiliar music,” which means familiarity plays an important role to a listener’s emotional engagement with music.
  2. Another study published by the PennState College of Communications, “Does Familiarity Breed Enjoyment? The Role of Contextual and Language Familiarity in Media Enjoyment,” examines the influence of context and language familiarity pertaining to a viewer’s enjoyment and narrative realism in science fiction films. The experiment required 147 participants to watch a sci-fi movie clip, which featured an alien character speaking one of three languages with varying degrees of contextual familiarity. Results revealed prior viewing allowed for contextual familiarity, relating to a higher degree of enjoyment, while there was no statistically significant relationship between language familiarity and enjoyment. The study, therefore, provides support that prior and repeat viewings of a movie, allowing room for contextual familiarity, leads to greater enjoyment in that which is being watched, regardless of language.
  3. The final study was performed by Raj Raghunathan Ph.D., who wrote “Familiarity Breeds Enjoyment: Why Forced Familiarity with Novel Experiences Enhances Enjoyment in Life.” Upon arriving to America, Raghunathan’s first meal consisted of two burritos from the ubiquitous Taco Bell, which he hardly was able to gulp down. Over time, however, Raghunathan not only began to tolerate Taco Bell, but found himself craving the “despicable stuff.” Through the mere exposure effect study, participants developed a greater liking for certain ideograms due to previous exposure. From this study, Raghunathan found that familiar things are not only enjoyable, but comfortable. In the end, Raghunathan decided that life is more enjoyable when we expose ourselves, and our egos, repeatedly to experiences that we initially dislike, so as to build familiarity in otherwise missed opportunities for enjoyment.

These three studies provide support to the notion that repetition leads to familiarity, which leads to enjoyment, across all aspects of life. Familiarity in a subject or experience allows our brain to produce higher emotional engagement, increase our contextual awareness, and produce cravings towards enjoyment in otherwise repulsive situations. It is in our best interest, then, to expose ourselves to as many differences in this world so as to familiarize and develop enjoyment in all things, so as to live a life full of joy.

The opening band’s music, therefore, is one that I enjoy due to repetition of the unfamiliar.

But to what end should we follow this conclusion? Should we listen to Raghunathan’s suggestion and expose ourselves to all of our dislikes, enjoying everything in life? Or are there instances where repetition leads to not only familiarity and enjoyment, but addiction, depression, and unwanted tendencies?

Now imagine these three scenarios:

  1. Repeatably listening to Kanye West’s new song “Famous,” featuring a line so “pointlessly gross and heedless and attention grabbing,” to the point where you catch yourself still rapping along with it.
  2. Binge watching How I Met Your Mother, a show with notoriously bad laugh tracks and repulsive characters like Barney, to the point of developing wonder in how this long-winded story will end.
  3. Eating Taco Bell, the only “restaurant” that has sent you the unpleasant surprise of food poisoning while “living más,” to the point of enjoying four Quesalupas on a Saturday night.

None of these instances are going to cause you incredible harm (well, maybe Taco Bell will), but when repetition does lead to harmful enjoyment, applying this principle to other facets of life requires caution. Think of the consequences familiarity plays when enjoying drug use, watching pornography, devoting hours to video games, and even craving wealth or power.

We live in a world that asks us to crave and enjoy everything, but although we have the capacity to enjoy through familiarity, it is in our best interest to occasionally reframe from repeating everything that repels us.

Now, go listen to Hop Along.

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