mere exposure effect

When a song you love comes on the radio and you recognize it, it’s time to jam out! You love this song. It’s a great song. And you would know because you have great taste in music. So it’s objectively a great song.

Wrong. While I’m sure you have great taste in music, you may not love that song for the reasons you think. There’s a psychological phenomenon called the “mere exposure effect.” Essentially, what it says is that people develop their preferences for things simply by being exposed to them more often.

The effect isn’t limited to music. It occurs in art, words, people’s faces, all sorts of things. One example is how people are more likely to invest in a company and consider it a sound investment just because they’re familiar with the company and their product. Would you rather put your money in Newmont Mining Corporation or The Walt Disney Company? Knowing nothing else, you’d probably pick Disney. I know I would.

Guy probably playing a super basic chord progressionBut back to the music. This effect also explains why we like pop songs that sound the same. Familiar chord progressions are easy for us to subconsciously pick up. Even if we’ve never heard a song before, our brains are finding those familiar points and indicating to us that we like it. Why? Because we know that we like it because we heard it before and liked it. Because it was familiar.

This familiarity principle can also be used to train yourself to like things that you may not have previously. Much in the same way that you acquire tastes (coffee, beer, dark chocolate, tomatoes for me personally), you can acquire a taste for certain music. It helps to ease yourself into it. Going straight from classical Italian opera to screamo metal will probably take quite a bit of work, but I listened to a lot of southern-influenced rock and R&B while maintaining that I hated country music before I realized, “Oh wait, I kind of like country music.”

So there are two takeaways you can… *ahem* take away from this.

  1. Your taste in music isn’t because it is objectively good or bad. It could just be what you’ve heard and not heard.
  2. What other people find good or bad isn’t right or wrong, it’s just what they’re familiar with.

So if you love the Chainsmokers, that’s fine. If somebody else does, but you don’t, that’s fine too. And if you really want to see what all the fuss is about, just listen to it like 100 more times.


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