Why Do Hit Songs Get Played Over and Over? The Mere-Exposure Effect

How something you don’t like at first grows on you

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily
lady listening to popular songs music on headphones
When you’re introduced to a new type of music, listen to it a lot, and over time, it will become increasingly attractive to you due to the “mere-exposure” effect. (Image: Shutterstock/Dean Drobot)

The more we’re exposed to something, the more appealing we’ll found it. This applies not only to physical attractiveness, but also to music, among other things. Professor Vishton examines the studies on this phenomenon.

Mere-Exposure Effect Photo Study

The mere-exposure effect suggests that merely looking at a face over time makes it seem increasingly attractive. One of the best demonstrations of this effect comes from a study in which an experimenter started by taking a photo of the participant’s face. 

They then made two copies of that photo. The first was merely the photo itself. The second photo was digitally flipped over so that the left side of the image was on the right and vice versa. The experimenter then presented these two photos to the study participant and asked them to choose which one looked better.

A significant majority of people pick the mirror image photo as looking better. The explanation that the experimenters offer is based on the mere-exposure effect. 

We rarely see our face the way a standard image is projected, with the right side of the face on the left of our visual field and vice versa. Most of the time when we look at our face, it’s in a mirror. 

We’ve been exposed to the mirror image of our own face far more than to the standard image. Thus, even though we don’t actually look that way to other people, that’s what we prefer.

How Music Grows on Us

The mere-exposure effect actually applies to almost all stimuli we encounter, not just faces. Robert Zajonc demonstrated it with words and even scribbly line drawings. If you see something for a while, then later—if you’re asked about it—you’ll tend to see it as more attractive than you would have the first time you encountered it.

If you really don’t like jazz or classical music—and you wish that you did—all you may need to do is listen to it a lot. Over time, it’s likely to become increasingly attractive to you. Eventually, due to the mere-exposure effect, you may even come to love it.

However, this effect has limits that should be noted. An avant-garde piece of music that’s so complicated that you don’t discern any pattern at all may not grow on you. The stimulus may seem too chaotic or lacking in coherence to become familiar.

On the other hand, almost everyone has experienced some tune that’s repeated so many times that sheer over-exposure eventually makes the familiarity unattractive. Some studies have suggested that mere exposure may be most effective with roughly 10–20 exposures to something. 

Limitations of Exposure Effect

The optimal level can vary, but eventually, at some higher number of exposures, as with any food, for instance—no matter how delicious it is—saturation can set in. Beyond that point of saturation, attraction may even begin to decline.

Mere-exposure effects may also depend on the initial experiences being closer to puzzlement than to aversion. Mere-exposure may not be sufficient to overcome strong aversion, for example. Repeated exposure to a person who’s regarded as directly responsible for a very negative outcome may actually increase aversion.

Mere-exposure affects the brain in many different ways. It’s not exactly clear which parts of those effects are related to the increased sense of pleasure associated with merely exposed stimuli. 

Novel Versus Familiar Stimuli

As stimuli are presented repeatedly to the sensory systems, they seem to require less and less activity in order to process them. Repeatedly presented stimuli are also generally processed more quickly than novel stimuli. This processing ease—this sensory fluency—may be related to the sense of pleasure that comes with familiarity.

Novel stimuli also tend to cause at least slight activation of the sympathetic nervous system—that is, the part of our autonomic nervous system that prepares our bodies for a fight or flight response. Now, if it’s a novel face, you aren’t going to react in the same way as if there’s suddenly a giant, snarling tiger in the room with you. 

The fight or flight response won’t be nearly as big for a novel face, but a small activation will take place. As you get familiar with people and places, this response is reduced. You can relax more, and that may lead to that better sense of pleasure that comes with familiarity.

Regardless of how the brain mediates the mere-exposure effect, Professor Vishton’s tip remains the same. If you spend a lot of time with something—or someone—you’ll tend to like it more and more. If you want to be that something, or someone, that is liked more—maybe even loved—then increasing the amount of time that your image is falling onto people’s eyes and ears will help.

This tip presumes that you aren’t initially perceived by the person as strongly aversive. Mere-exposure doesn’t seem to overcome that. By presuming that someone finds you at least not strongly unattractive, though, mere-exposure will tend to increase their sense of how attractive you look.

Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.