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We’ve all felt that warm feeling when we recognise something or someone, and it makes us feel more comfortable. Often referred to as the mere-exposure effect or the familiarity principle in social psychology, there has been extensive research into why people have a preference for the things they know. Successful businesses have managed to use this to their advantage and attract customers.
Why do people like familiar things?
Research into the mere-exposure effect has been going on since 1876, when Gustav Fechner and Edward Titchener noted that people experienced a ‘glow of warmth’ when around something familiar. Later studies in the 1960s by Robert Zajonc found that participants who were asked to rate certain stimulus had a strong preference for the items they had already seen over the things that hadn’t been previously introduced.
Charles Goetzinger also developed some interesting findings in 1968. In his class at Oregon State University, the professor had one of his students wear a black bag over his body with only his feet protruding, and sat him at the back of the class over a period of time. At first, the other students met the bag with hostility, but after a while became friendly with it.
There are some studies that suggest that becoming too familiar with something can have a detrimental effect, though. Robert Bornstein found that mere exposure reaches its maximum effect between 10 and 20 exposures, and then after that the effectiveness can decline. This has been likened to enjoying a song more after hearing it a few times, but then becoming sick of it later when it has been overplayed.
How do businesses use this to their advantage?
Successful businesses have managed to take people’s desire for the familiar and use it to increase sales. A prime example of this would be to venture into any shopping mall at Christmas time and hear all the recognisable Christmas songs being played. Dr Victoria Williamson found that the mere-exposure effect can provide a positive memory when hearing a familiar song, and this is used by retailers as a way to boost sales and keep people shopping for longer.
Games developers have long used familiarity to their advantage as well, and companies including have found that basing their online slots on popular films like Jurassic Park is a sure way to attract players. This is supported by research from Dr Mark Griffiths, a behavioural psychologist and the director of the International Gaming Research team at Nottingham Trent University. Research has found that players of slot games are more likely to go for a ‘brand that has been tested on the wider public before it gets adapted into a slot’.
This is why games based on blockbuster films and hit TV series like Game of Thrones are attracting large numbers of players. This process can be seen in console gaming as well, where there is a large number of games based on characters that have long been popular in mainstream culture. The Batman: Arkham series is a prime example of games that have found success from using a recognisable character. The final instalment, Batman: Arkham Knight sold more than 5 million copies due to the use of well-known characters from the comic books and films, along with having a detailed storyline and an immersive playing experience. Successful companies also keep their logos consistent so that customers can instantly recognise the brand.
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In the fiercely competitive world of retail, when we go shopping there are so many different psychological elements in play that most of us don’t even realise. And in busy places it’s the familiar brand logos like Starbucks and Coca-Cola that stand out from the independent shops and draw us in. The famous drinks company has barely changed the style of its logo since its inception in 1886, and is familiar to millions all over the world.
Retailers who want to try something new should be aware of how the mere-exposure effect can govern our choices, and make a conscious effort to override it. Businesses who want to attract more customers need to use it to their advantage, be consistent, and involve tried-and-tested themes.
Jason Smith did his degree in psychology at the University of Edinburgh. He has an ongoing interest in mental health and well-being.