The Mere Exposure Effect in Psychology and Why You Believe the Things You Do


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Sep 14, 2023

5 min read


The Mere Exposure Effect in Psychology and Why You Believe the Things You Do


What Is the Mere Exposure Effect in Psychology? Researchers studying the "mere exposure effect" have found that we often prefer things that we’ve seen before over things that are new. The mere exposure effect refers to the finding that, the more often people have previously been exposed to something, the more they like it. This effect occurs even if people do not consciously remember that they have seen the object before. In 1968, social psychologist Robert Zajonc published a landmark paper on the mere exposure effect. According to Zajonc, people didn’t need to experience a reward or positive outcome while around the object—simply being exposed to the object would be enough to make people like it.

The Connection to Human Desire and Mimetic Desire:

The mere exposure effect provides an interesting point of connection to human desire, specifically a social process known as mimetic desire. Mimetic desire is the idea that our desires are often influenced by the desires of others. We look to others to determine what we should desire and what is valuable. In this context, the mere exposure effect suggests that our preference for things we’ve seen before may be influenced by the fact that others have also been exposed to them. The more we see something, the more likely it is that others have seen it as well, reinforcing its desirability.

The Mere Exposure Effect and Animals:

Interestingly, the mere exposure effect occurs not only in studies with human research participants but also in studies with non-human animals. This finding suggests that the effect is not solely dependent on conscious awareness or cognitive processes. Animals also show a preference for things they have been repeatedly exposed to, even if they cannot consciously remember those exposures. This suggests that there may be evolutionary reasons for the existence of the mere exposure effect.

The Role of Uncertainty Reduction:

Uncertainty reduction is a key factor in understanding why the mere exposure effect occurs. As humans, we are primed to be cautious around new things since they could potentially be dangerous to us. However, when we repeatedly see the same thing and nothing bad happens, we start to realize that there’s nothing to be afraid of. This reduction in uncertainty leads to a preference for familiar things, as they are perceived as safer and more predictable.

Perceptual Fluency and Familiarity:

Another aspect that contributes to the mere exposure effect is perceptual fluency. When we’ve seen something before, it’s easier for us to understand and interpret it. Our brains are wired to recognize patterns and familiarize ourselves with them. This familiarity makes it more comfortable for us to engage with the object or concept, leading to a preference for familiar things over unfamiliar ones.

Why You Believe the Things You Do:

Moving on to the topic of beliefs, it is important to understand that what you believe to be true is influenced by how much you want it to be true. The more something helps you deal with uncertainty, the lower the bar is for you to believe it’s true. In times of crisis or uncertainty, such as the Great Plague of London, people were more inclined to believe prophecies, astrological conjurations, and old wives' tales. The desire for hope and reassurance in the face of danger can lead us to believe almost anything.

The Influence of Belief on Action and Reputation:

Beliefs often serve the purpose of justifying past actions, protecting our reputation, providing hope, maximizing income, or signaling our belonging to a particular group or tribe. The allure of a belief can sometimes overshadow its truth. We tend to remember and emphasize memories that confirm our beliefs, connect dots between experiences, and make good stories. This selective memory and interpretation shape our perception of truth and can lead us to cling to false beliefs rather than admit mistakes or change our minds.

The Importance of Intellectual Openness:

Changing our minds is rarer than it should be, as we often prefer leaders who stubbornly stick to their views. However, the core of a scientific lifestyle is to change your mind when faced with information that disagrees with your views. Intellectual inertia and blind faith in authority figures hinder our ability to critically evaluate and update our beliefs. Logic should form the basis of our reasoning, but cognitive biases and wishful thinking often dominate our decision-making processes.

Beliefs as Social Signals:

Beliefs are not just about what we know; they also serve as social signals. Our beliefs offer clues about how we establish our beliefs, our confidence in our intelligence, and our ability to pass reliable information to others. We should seek experts who are willing to change their minds based on new evidence, but oftentimes, we prefer individuals who are confident in their beliefs and never question them. This desire to eliminate uncertainty can lead us to believe things that have little relation to reality.

Actionable Advice:

  • 1. Be aware of the mere exposure effect: Recognize that repeated exposure to something can influence your preferences and biases. Take the time to critically evaluate whether your preference for something is based on genuine liking or simply familiarity.
  • 2. Embrace intellectual openness: Challenge your beliefs and be willing to change your mind when faced with contradictory evidence. Avoid intellectual inertia and actively seek out diverse perspectives to broaden your understanding.
  • 3. Strive for truth, not just certainty: Understand that beliefs should be based on evidence and logical reasoning, rather than just providing a sense of certainty. Be mindful of your motivations for believing something and critically evaluate whether it aligns with reality.


The mere exposure effect and the reasons behind our beliefs shed light on the complexities of human perception and decision-making. Our preferences for familiar things and our tendency to believe what offers hope or certainty can sometimes lead us astray. By understanding these psychological phenomena, we can strive to make more informed choices, challenge our own beliefs, and pursue truth rather than simply seeking comfort.

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