Mere exposure effect

Illustration for mere-exposure effect article: two people look at smartphone with other people photos.
Photo by cottonbro

You like what you see: mere exposure effect

Mere exposure effect refers to a psychological effect of increasing preference for the object through a series of repeated exposures. Simply put, the more a person sees something, the more they might like it or prefer it over another, less familiar, alternative.

The mere exposure studies had a crucial impact on marketing and behavioural psychology of any sort [1]. Also, we consider it to be a notable phenomenon in interpersonal relations building since it involves a fair deal of liking the person one wants to build a relationship with.

Root research

A significant contribution to mere exposure effect studies was made by Robert J. Zajonc (1923–2008), a social psychologist and a professor of Michigan University. In his acclaimed study “Attitudinal effects of mere exposure” (1968), a series of experiments was conducted with respondents exposed to different stimuli (words, characters, pictures, etc.) and attitudes people formed towards them [2]. By “mere exposure” the author means a condition that stimulus is exposed long enough to be perceived by an individual.

Words frequency in language

In the first part of the study, R. Zajonc evaluated the frequency of the desirable word occurrences in comparison to the undesirable ones. “Desirability” of one word over another was determined in pairs of thoroughly picked antonyms (using specific procedure). For every pair, 154 student respondents picked the word that they considered a more preferred alternative.

Authors observed that the desirability measure correlates with the frequency of the word occurrence in the language. That means the preferred alternatives are used more often than the words with undesirable meaning. 
Although it is quite a peculiar part of the study, it is implausible to make any causal inferences about the words usage and mere exposure. Are some words used more often because they are more desirable? Or, words that occur more in the language are perceived as “preferred” by respondents? Nevertheless, it gave an impulse to the second part of the study.

“Goodness” of the meaning

In the second and most important part, R. Zajonc and colleagues set up a series of experiments with different stimuli, such as words and characters. They were aimed at the observation of the connection between the frequency of exposure and perceived “goodness” of the item. Let’s take a look at the experiment with made-up words.

The authors made up a set of Turkish-like words and distributed them into groups with different frequencies. Such that “word A” is featured 1 time, word B - 2 times, word C - 5 times and so on. Then, they asked the participants to pronounce the words from a given group. That way, every person had seen some words a couple of times and some words a lot (up to 25!). This was the exposure activity. Next, experimenters asked people to guess the meaning of the words on a “bad-good” scale 0 to 6. As a result, a connection between the word exposure number and its “goodness” rating was built. Please see the figure below.

Figure with experimental dependency of perceived desirability of the word / character from the exposure frequency, log scale. Source: Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of personality and social psychology, 9(2, pt. 2), 1-27.

Black line on that figure corresponds to the alternative experiment with made-up Chinese characters. This was performed to make the exposure more “mere”, without pronouncing but with just a looking period for about 2 seconds.

As can be seen from the figure and underlying statistical analysis [2], a strong exposure effect was obtained. Increasing frequency exposure from 0 to 25 times contributed to the average increase in perceived “goodness” of the guessed word or character meaning by around 1.5 points.

Affective primacy hypothesis

The stronger hypothesis that involves the mere exposure effect was formulated by Zajonc in 1980 [4]. The affective primacy hypothesis asserts that positive and negative affective reactions can be evoked with minimal stimulus input and virtually no cognitive processing [5]. In other words, people can make inferences about whether they like the object or not before they think consciously. That is quite a significant assertion, which implies that people decide first and rationalize that choice with their thinking later.


There are limits to a mere exposure effect manifestation. One experiment showed that exposure to people we initially dislike makes us dislike them even more [6]. So, popping up in people's personal agendas, make sure that they perceive you at least neutrally.

Also, there is a notion of overexposure. The overexposure effect refers to the decrease in liking when the frequency of exposures is high. This can be connected with “boredom” or other emotions that a person starts to feel after seeing something too often.

Applications in interpersonal relations

Contemporary studies show that the mere exposure effect influences people's preferences in various activity areas. Moreover, the influence can be so subtle that the person making the decision cannot tell if the effect took place [7]. Therefore, this is a powerful phenomenon that shapes our interpersonal relations.

The first helpful application is maintaining relationships by keeping in touch with other people. By reaching out to another person regularly, but not too often, with something interesting for them, one can steadily increase their good will.

Finding friends within a community is also a good application of mere exposure. Put yourself in an environment when you naturally see other people and others see you. The initial mistrust will be reduced due to the regular exposure, and an opening for shared episodes will emerge.


Finding friends within a community is also a good application of mere exposure. Put yourself in an environment when you naturally see other people and others see you. The initial mistrust will be reduced due to the regular exposure, and an opening for shared episodes will emerge.

  1. Mere-exposure effect, Wikipedia:
  2. Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of personality and social psychology, 9(2p2), 1.
  4. Zajonc, R. B. (1980). Feeling and thinking: Preferences need no inferences. American Psychologist, 35(2), 151–175.
  5. Murphy, Sheila & Zajonc, Robert. (1993). Affect, Cognition, and Awareness: Affective Priming With Optimal and Suboptimal Stimulus Exposures. Journal of personality and social psychology, 64(5), 723–739.
  6. Swap, W. C. (1977). "Interpersonal Attraction and Repeated Exposure to Rewarders and Punishers". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 3 (2): 248–251.
  7. Bornstein, R. F., & Craver-Lemley, C. (2017). Mere exposure effect. In R. F. Pohl (Ed.), Cognitive illusions: Intriguing phenomena in thinking, judgment and memory (2nd ed., pp. 256–275). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
  8. Montoya, R. M., Horton, R. S., Vevea, J. L., Citkowicz, M., & Lauber, E. A. (2017). A re-examination of the mere exposure effect: The influence of repeated exposure on recognition, familiarity, and liking. Psychological Bulletin, 143(5), 459–498.

Prepared by the team of Knei, personal connections tool

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