Principles of Design #21 – Exposure Effect

Familiarity breeds liking

When we have neutral feelings about something, repeated exposure to whatever it is has the effect of increasing its likeability and acceptability, an effect known as exposure effect (or alternatively mere exposure effect or repetition effect).  This is an effect which is commonly used in advertising and marketing, especially to build initial positive affect for a new brand.  Other examples include the popularity of jingles, as the more a song or slogan is repeated. the more popular it becomes.

The effect only works for something for which we have neutral or positive feelings, and if we are negative towards a stimulus, repeated exposure may have the opposite effect of amplifying our negative perceptions.  The exposure effect has been researched and confirmed for music, visual art, images, people and advertisements, and was first researched and documented by the psychologist Robert Zajonc more than 30 years ago.  His work and subsequent research show that familiarity only breeds contempt where we initially dislike something anyway!

Hidden persuaders?

Typically the strongest effects are seen with photographs, meaningful words, names and simple shapes, and the effect weakens with repeated exposure (perhaps due to boredom).  The effect can be amplified with complex and interesting stimuli and weakened with less interesting stimuli, and the effect is also weaker the longer the stimulus is exposed.  This means that strongest effects are seen when exposures are so brief or subtle that they are subliminal (ie unconscious) or separated by delays.

So familiarity does not breed contempt, but has a primary role in aesthetic appeal (ie we like the things we are most familiar with), a phenomena consistently documented in social research.  This also explains why we often come to accept things which we are initially resistant to, for example new movements in art (first audiences found impressionist paintings and the music of Stravinsky to be shocking).  This is also a common phenomena in food preferences, as out instincts are to dislike sour and bitter foods (for example, beer and coffee) which we come to like as we grow older and have sufficient exposure to their tastes.

Conditioning familiarity

Exposure effects are common tools in propaganda campaigns and in less controversial advertising campaigns, and perhaps linked to the phenomena of availability bias where we all are susceptible to attributing more importance to stimuli which we are more easily able to recall in memory (which is why liking for brands goes up when they are advertised).  So this effect can be used to strengthen communication campaigns and enhance the credibility and perceived aesthetic of any design, by improving the way that people think about the brand or service.

Experience shows that best effects are observed when exposures are kept brief and separated in time – a finding which is consistent with memory research, where short repeated learning over time is more effective than longer periods of focused learning.  It is generally most powerful for the first ten exposures and then weakens, implying that focus on the initial presentations of an idea will have most impact.  However, the effect is tempered by the normal resistance to designs which are more different from the norm, requiring greater perseverance and more repetition at the right intervals.


Principles of Design, Revised and Updated by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden and Jill Butler (2010)

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