The Mere-Exposure Effect: Our "Tastes" Are Wildly Biased By What's Familiar
Why do religious people typically adopt the same faith as their families?
How many top-grossing movies are actually the "best" film in their genre?
How the hell does Pitbull continue to have a career?
A tendency we all share provides at least a partial answer to these three great mysteries...
We prefer things that we're already familiar with.
As in, we often like things *because* we've seen them many times, not because we've evaluated many options and have chosen the movie or song or meal that brings us the most enjoyment.
Starting in the 1960's, a handful of studies revealed this phenomenon ("The Mere-Exposure Effect").
The studies showed that we prefer art we've seen before (researchers could manufacture people’s taste in art by exposing them to certain art more often), find familiar-looking faces more attractive, and even start to like unfamiliar shapes and characters as we start to see them more frequently.
Stephen King knew this
After Stephen King became a famous author, he began to wonder if his continued success was due to good luck (specifically, his existing fame) or his ability to write exceptional books.
So he decided to start publishing books under a pen name, "Richard Bachman", to see how they'd sell.
He published a handful of novels as Bachman, all in the same genre and a similar voice as King, and...
The books completely flopped.
[One Bachman book] sold 28,000 copies during its initial run—and then ten times as many when it was revealed that Bachman was, in fact, King.
Same books. Same distribution. Very different results.
The evolutionary explanation
In Hit Makers, Derek Thompson shares one explanation of why we like things merely because we’ve seen them before:
"The evolutionary explanation for the exposure effect is simple: if you recognize an animal or plant, then it hasn’t killed you yet."
If a meal hasn't killed us and it's reasonably enjoyable, why try something new?
If the office dog hasn't mauled us yet, our guard may go down a little bit more each day and we may end up loving the damn thing.
The same goes for new people in our lives.
How to use this to our advantage
The exposure effect suggests that many of our “tastes” are not consciously developed by “us,” per se; they’re often just reflections of whatever chance circumstances we have happened to find ourselves in.
This may be one good reason to consciously try new things every once in a while, lest we assume that our own particular life circumstances have exposed us to the most useful or most enjoyable experiences, people, food, music, and ideas.
And, further, if we want to ruthlessly exploit this tendency in others, we may want to make an effort to become more noticed at work, in our social circles, or online.
Since people often prefer things for no other reason than that they are familiar, we may not necessarily need to become more skilled...
We need to be more visible.