Mere Exposure Effect

After repeated exposure to something it becomes familiar, and even if it’s false or bad, it can come to be viewed as true or acceptable – even favorable, simply because it feels familiar.

This is called The Mere Exposure Effect.

Also known as reiteration effect, illusion of truth effect, validity effect, illusory truth effect, and the truth effect.

Clearly this is incredibly dangerous if those with great resources wish to disseminate bad information, or convince people to do things that are not in their best interest.

Those in the know regularly capitalize on this influential advertising trick to promote products, services, people, actions, agendas, politics, beliefs, ideas & attitudes — you name it.

It’s maybe a cliche to say — once you know about it, you see it everywhere — but you really do see it everywhere. It’s why corporations, governments, lobbyists, advertisers, and political parties pay trolls and influencers to post relentlessly on social media. It’s why the same billboard picture on the highway sometimes stays up for months. It’s why earworm commercial jingles are a thing. It’s why church services run weekly.

I hear a critique sometimes about “preaching to the choir” — when someone is repetitive to an audience who’s already in agreement. But in fact, I’ve learned that repetition is needed to overcome all kinds of unhelpful cognitive biases and especially to overcome all the BAD information people are bombarded with all the time. So actually the choir benefits from being present for the homily, if you don’t want them to be tempted to go sing somewhere else, about something else. 

Frequency of a message is also important in maintaining everything from preferences to beliefs and includes, unfortunately, factual knowledge. The reiterative effect, when used by bad actors to promote disinformation for whatever reason, can often overcome rational considerations if it becomes overwhelming. Even repeating facts to oneself seems helpful. Studying results in passing tests.

Advertisers know this. Politicians know this. Governments know this. Corporations know this. Churches know this.

And you know it. So what are you going to repeat? Hopefully you will at least refrain from repeating bad information. And when debunking bad information, please lead with the truth, don’t repeat the lie.


The Decision Lab: Why do we prefer things that we are familiar with?
The mere exposure effect can result in suboptimal decision-making. Good decisions are made by evaluating all possible courses of actions based on their effectiveness, not their familiarity. When deciding between alternatives, we shouldn’t be choosing the familiar option, we should be choosing the best option. This is because sometimes the best option is not the most familiar one. Sometimes the most effective course of action is the one that is unfamiliar to us. Moreover, sticking with what we know limits our exposure to new things, ideas, and viewpoints. This limits the range of choices we are able and willing to consider when making future decisions, and narrows the perspective from which we make them.

Mere Exposure Effect, by Katja Falkenbach, Gleb Schaab, Oliver Pfau, Magdalena Ryfa, Bahadir Birkan
The mere exposure effect is a psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things or people that are more familiar to them than others. Repeated exposure increases familiarity. This effect is therefore also known as the familiarity effect. The earliest known research on the effect was conducted by Gustav Fechner in 1876. The effect was also documented by Edward Titchener and described as the glow of warmth one feels in the presence of something familiar.

Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business, Rice University: Echo Chamber Why Is It So Convincing To Repeat A Claim Again And Again — Even If It’s Patently Untrue?
The marketing term “effective frequency” refers to the idea that a consumer has to see or hear an ad a number of times before its message hits home. Essentially, the more you say something, the more it sticks in — and possibly on — people’s heads. It doesn’t even have to be true — and that’s the problem. What advertisers call “effective frequency,” psychologists call the “illusory truth effect”: the more you hear something, the easier it is for your brain to process, which makes it feel true, regardless of its basis in fact. “Each time, it takes fewer resources to understand,” says Lisa Fazio, a psychology professor at Vanderbilt University. “That ease of processing gives it the weight of a gut feeling.” That feeling of truth allows misconceptions to sneak into our knowledge base, where they masquerade as facts, Fazio and her colleagues write in a 2015 journal article.

Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior: Frequency and the conference of referential validity – by Hasher, Lynn; Goldstein, David; Toppino, Thomas (1977)
The present research has demonstrated that the repetition of a plausible statement increases a person’s belief in the referential validity or truth of that statement. Other research has demonstrated the sensitivity of the information processing system to the frequency variable (cf., Estes, 1976; Underwood, 1971).

Australian Army Occasional Paper No. 8 The Effectiveness of Influence Activities in Information Warfare by CASSANDRA BROOKER
This propaganda feedback loop demonstrates the power of inundation, repetition, emotional/social contagions, and personality bias confirmations, as well as demonstrating behaviours of people preferring to access entertaining content that does not require ‘System 2’ critical thought. Audiences encountered multiple versions of the same story, propagated over months, through their favoured media sources, to the point where both recall and credibility were enhanced, fact-checkers were overwhelmed and a ‘majority illusion’ was created.

The Decision Lab: Why do we believe misinformation more easily when it’s repeated many times?
We may be skeptical of a false claim the first time it floats through our Twitter timeline, but the more we are exposed to it, the more we start to feel like it’s true—and our pre-existing knowledge can’t prevent this. In the age of social media, it’s incredibly easy for misinformation to spread quickly to huge numbers of people. The evidence suggests that global politics have already been strongly influenced by online propaganda campaigns, run by bad actors who understand that all they need to do to help a lie gain traction is to repeat it again and again. While it may sound overly dramatic, this is a threat to the integrity of democracy itself, and to the cohesion of our societies. Now more than ever, it is important to be aware of the fact that the way we assess the accuracy of information is biased.

Illusory truth effect from Wikipedia
The illusory truth effect (also known as the illusion of truth effect, validity effect, truth effect, or the reiteration effect) is the tendency to believe false information to be correct after repeated exposure. This phenomenon was first identified in a 1977 study at Villanova University and Temple University. When truth is assessed, people rely on whether the information is in line with their understanding or if it feels familiar. The first condition is logical, as people compare new information with what they already know to be true. Repetition makes statements easier to process relative to new, unrepeated statements, leading people to believe that the repeated conclusion is more truthful.

Mere-exposure effect from Wikipedia
The mere-exposure effect is a psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them. In social psychology, this effect is sometimes called the familiarity principle. The effect has been demonstrated with many kinds of things, including words, Chinese characters, paintings, pictures of faces, geometric figures, and sounds.