Why are hit songs played over and over again? The effect of simple exposure
Through Peter M. Vishton, PhD, Guillaume and Marie
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily
The more we are exposed to something, the more attractive we will find it. This applies not only to physical attractiveness, but also to music, among others. Professor Vishton reviews studies on this phenomenon.
Single exposure effect photo study
The simple exposure effect suggests that just looking at a face over time makes it more and more attractive. One of the best demonstrations of this effect comes from a study in which an experimenter began by taking a photo of the participant’s face.
They then made two copies of this photo. The first was just the photo itself. The second photo has been digitally flipped so that the left side of the image is on the right and vice versa. The experimenter then presented these two photos to the study participant and asked them to choose the one that looked the most beautiful.
A large majority of people choose the mirror photo as being more beautiful. The explanation proposed by the experimenters is based on the effect of simple exposure.
We rarely see our face as a standard image is projected, with the right side of the face to the left of our visual field and vice versa. Most of the time when we look at our face it is in a mirror.
We were exposed to the mirror image of our own face much more than the standard image. So even though we don’t look at others that way, that’s what we prefer.
How music grows in us
The simple exposure effect actually applies to almost any stimuli we encounter, not just faces. Robert Zajonc demonstrated this with words and even scribbled line drawings. If you see something for a while, then later – if asked – you’ll tend to see it as more attractive than you would have seen the first time you met it.
If you really don’t like jazz or classical music and would like to like it, you might just have to listen to it a lot. Over time, it is likely to become more and more attractive to you. Eventually, due to the effect of mere exposure, you might even come to like it.
However, this effect has limitations that should be noted. A piece of avant-garde music that is so complicated that you cannot discern any pattern may not grow on you. The stimulus may seem too chaotic or inconsistent to become familiar.
On the other hand, almost everyone has experienced a melody that is repeated so many times that a simple overexposure ends up making familiarity unattractive. Some studies have suggested that a single exposure may be more effective with around 10 to 20 exposures to something.
Limits of the exposure effect
The optimum level may vary, but ultimately at a higher number of exposures, as with any food, for example, no matter how delicious it is, saturation can set in. Beyond this saturation point, the attraction may even begin to wane.
The effects of simple exposure may also depend on whether initial experiences are closer to bewilderment than aversion. Mere exposure may not be enough to overcome a strong aversion, for example. Repeated exposure to someone believed to be directly responsible for a very negative result may actually increase aversion.
Simple exposure affects the brain in different ways. It is not known exactly which parts of these effects are related to the heightened sense of pleasure associated with simply exposed stimuli.
New or familiar stimuli
As the stimuli are repeatedly presented to the sensory systems, they seem to require less and less activity to process them. Repeatedly presented stimuli are also generally processed faster than new stimuli. This ease of processing – this sensory ease – may be related to the sense of pleasure that accompanies familiarity.
The new stimuli also tend to cause at least a slight activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which is the part of our autonomic nervous system that prepares our body for a fight-or-flight response. Now, if it’s a new face, you’re not going to react the same way as if there were suddenly a giant, snarling tiger in the room with you.
The fight-or-flight response won’t be as important for a new face, but there will be a little activation. As you become more familiar with the people and places, this response is reduced. You can relax more, and this can lead to that better sense of pleasure that comes with familiarity.
Regardless of how the brain mediates the effect of simple exposure, Professor Vishton’s advice remains the same. If you spend a lot of time with something or someone, you will tend to like them more and more. If you want to be that something, or someone who is loved more, maybe even loved, then increasing the length of time your image falls on people’s eyes and ears will help.
This trick assumes that you are not initially perceived by the person as strongly aversive. Mere exposure doesn’t seem to overcome this. Assuming someone finds you at least not very unattractive, a simple exposure will tend to increase their sense of your attractiveness.
Peter M. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He received his doctorate in psychology and cognitive science from Cornell University. Prior to joining William & Mary’s faculty, he taught at Northwestern University and was Program Director for Developmental and Learning Sciences at the National Science Foundation.