In the era of subscription services, we are given unlimited access to a massive library of content at the flick of a switch. Despite that luxury, we still find ourselves constantly defaulting back to the ones that hit close to home. Intriguingly, there’s actually a science behind such habits that could be traced back as early as the 1800s.
There are numerous factors as to why we are drawn towards the same content. The obvious reason is simply having a deep affinity towards it, and the more we watch it, the stronger our connection and affection grow. We develop a sense of emotional attachment and nostalgia that helps us to relive positive memories or get into a healthy state of mind. Some watch the same films to analyze minuscule details to gain a wider understanding of the narrative as well as other elements that one would have missed during the first pass. Others hit replay a thousand times listening to a song they know by heart as researchers discovered that a spike of dopamine gets released in our brains when we are immersed in a trance.
Understanding Humans’ Default Settings
Experts Russel and Levy expressed that “reengaging with the same object, even just once, allows a reworking of experiences as consumers consider their own particular enjoyments and understandings of choices they have made” (Thompson, 2017). But this phenomenon has ignited the curiosity of psychologists, sociologists, and other scientists that could be pinned down back to the 1800s.
German psychologist, Gustav Fechner, took the liberty to explore this behavior in 1876. He was intrigued to find how the “glow of warmth” affected our behavior when exposed to something familiar. In 1968, Robert Zajonc further studied and developed this phenomenon, which he later coined as the Mere Exposure Effect. His work focused on finding the correlation between emotions, affect, and cognition that influences social behavior. In layman’s terms, the Mere Exposure Effect is the repeated interaction or encounter of a stimulus that enables you to develop a particular attachment or familiarity.
The Mere Exposure Effect is the repeated interaction or encounter of a stimulus that enables you to develop a particular attachment
In a nutshell, humans tend to prefer a song, film, picture, artwork if they have previously caught a glimpse of it compared to something that they haven’t experienced before. The notion of familiarity in this context stimulates a positive response to the receiver which eventually gets stored in our subconscious and eliminates the risks and fears humans have of the unknown. The fascinating aspect of this phenomenon is the fact that it’s most effective when it is presented to the subjects unconsciously.
One study proved that preschoolers who watched episodes of Sesame Street that featured diverse children who are Japanese, Canadian, and North American Indian descent are more likely to play and interact with such groups than those who haven’t seen such episodes (Baumeister & Vohs, 2007). It builds an instant form of trust that allows people to establish a connection to the stimuli.
In the field of entertainment, most streaming services’ algorithms are programmed to show you films that are similar to the ones that you frequently watch to make it easier for you to find your next binge-worthy shows, films, and music according to one’s preferred genre and interests. Some game developers have also used this technique by basing games on hit comic books, films, and shows like Game of Thrones, Warcraft, or superhero films to attract the same community who are avid fans or people who recognize it.
Little did we know that the Mere Exposure Effect is widely used in helping us make everyday decisions. When faced with uncertainty, we tend to lean on rationalizing our decisions based on the things or solution that feels familiar to what we have previously experienced. Most companies use this method to influence consumers’ perception by keeping their branding consistent and recognizable to other successful brands.
By doing so, our brain doesn’t need to work twice as hard to process and assess the risks of a new object or concept, therefore, we are more inclined to choose a certain person, food, music, film, or brand when it elicits a parallel resemblance to what we have already tried and tested. As some endeavors such as starting a new TV series require investing time and commitment to get to the bottom of the narrative, some wouldn’t take the risk so we tend to lean towards reverting to the ones we’ve seen repeatedly because we already know how circumstances would pan out.
Our human nature’s immediate response is to eliminate or reduce uncertainty to avoid falling into anxiety. We are conditioned to protect ourselves and be cautious when it comes to interacting with something foreign. Thus, the Mere Exposure Effect helps us better understand the choices that make or break our lives.