Mere-Exposure Effect & Cognitive Ease

It’s monday morning and you have just set out for work. You switch on the radio while driving, and the first song you listen is the new track composed by A.R Rahman or Justin Bieber. Now you really love Rahman or Justin but the song is not familiar. You listen to it for a bit, try to grasp it and then switch channels. Its just another song for you at the moment. Later in the afternoon while having lunch you see the same song and seem to find it interesting. Within a few days the song has registered your head and now you go on youtube to savour it. Somehow you have seemed to love this song and you might even end up listening to it on repeat mode! This is an example of Mere-Exposure Effect.

What is the Mere-Exposure Effect?

Mere exposure to a stimulus, simply increases our liking for it. But that's easier said than done, isn’t it? Let’s do a deep dive into this profound idea and see how we all can relate to it.

From hunter gatherers to agriculture: For the most part of our existence as sapiens we humans lived as hunter gatherers. Its only 10,000 years ago that we started agriculture, domesticating animals and started building societies. As hunter gatherers our core problems was survival. Being in the middle of the food chain we were often hunted and had to be extremely cautious. We could even end up eating something poisonous that could lead to death. For Sapiens evolution has been arduous and revelatory; yet a complete mystery!

However over the course of our survival, growth and learning we developed many faculties. One of the key developments was Cognitive Ease.

Cognitive Ease is the ease with which our brain processes information. This ease is vital to how positively we feel about things. This idea is really powerful to understanding human behaviour. Now imagine you are a hunter gatherer and everyday life is a challenge, cognitive ease is the most potent weapon for survival. The ability to decipher something as threatening or friendly could be a life and death situation. Cognitive ease is like the first impression that helped man decide about things and made life simple. We owe a lot of our survival to cognitive ease. Cognitive ease simply tells us if anything is threatening or familiar based on its evolutionary pattern. It drives and often decides out destiny unless we choose to think.

Kahneman, 2012 on Cognitive Ease

How is it related to Mere-Exposure Effect?

Well, when we see a stimulus over and over we process it as harmless and safe. We start liking it and consider it to be true. There is a sense of cognitive ease. It’s strange but deep down we still operate from the same animal instinct of survival that we did thousands of years back.

In 1968 there was a survey done on this by Robert Zajonc who has been a major contributor to this theory. Zajonc conducted four experiments, each of which provided overwhelming to strong support for the hypothesis that mere repeated exposure of an individual to a stimulus object enhances his or her attitude toward it. For example, in an experiment, subjects were shown nonsense symbols that resembled Chinese characters. Each character was shown from 0–25 times. The subjects were then asked to rate how they felt about each character. Eleven out of twelve times, the character was liked better when it was in the high frequency category. (This paragraph is taken from here).

How does it apply to my daily life?

Affective(emotional) reactions to stimuli are often the very first reactions of the organism, and for lower organisms they are dominant reactions. –R B Zajonc

Why is it hard to quit the same old job? or that broken relationship? We often end up paying over 30% for products that are branded against unbranded goods. The human minds looks for cognitive ease, so it can feel secured. We must investigate why we like, buy or undertake certain actions. Do we want to live a life of cognitive ease or take a challenge within and breakfree? On that note i rest my case.

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