Main content
Current time:0:00Total duration:6:28

Proximity and the mere exposure effect

Video transcript

- [Voiceover] Even today, in our ultra-connected world, proximity, or geographic nearness, is still one of the most powerful predictors of friendship and relationships. In general, people are still inclined to like and date and marry people from the same neighborhood, or who sit next to each other in class, or who work in the same office. And this has led some researchers to note that mating starts with meeting. But why would something like this happen? Why would proximity be such a powerful indicator of relationships? There seem to be two main reasons. The first is that we aren't going to meet and fall in love with people whom we don't have the opportunity to meet. If I live in Austin, Texas, I'm likely to meet and befriend and fall in love with people who also live in Austin, Texas. And maybe there's a person out in California who's perfect for me in every way, and I'm sure it would be really great if I could get together with that person. But the truth of the matter is if I don't have the opportunity to ever meet that person, I'm never going to be able to befriend them or start a relationship with them. But I think that it's tempting to think that, while this might have been true of relationships in the past, that it wouldn't apply to our modern world, where people can connect with non-local individuals so easily, through travel or college or the internet. But it turns out that this is still true. Even when we take things like internet dating into account, people are more likely to look at profiles and try to meet people who live in close proximity to them. And even if you can think of one or two exceptions to this rule, maybe you know someone who's in a very successful long-distance relationship, I think that it's helpful to keep in mind the fact that there are literally billions of people in this world, so even if we meet and befriend some people in different locations, that doesn't change the fact that, on average, proximity is still an important predictor. The second thing that might drive this proximity effect is the mere exposure effect, which states that repeated exposure to novel people or objects or stimuli increases our liking for them. So the more often we see something, the more often we like it. Just to be clear, this doesn't just apply to people. It applies to everything. Music, nonsense syllables, geometric figures, numbers. The more we see something, the more likely we are to like it and to rate more favorably than novel things that we have not been exposed to before. Maybe you're thinking to yourself right now that there is no way that this can be true because you can think of a lot of examples that disprove it. Maybe you started to hate orange juice after drinking it every morning for years. And you despise that song that's played over and over again on the radio. And in response to that, I would tell you that, yes, burn out is totally a thing that can happen when we are repeatedly exposed to a stimulus, but that said, we are talking about all repeated exposures, and, in general, this increase in likeability with repeated exposure tends to be true, even though we can probably all think of one or two incidences that violate it. This has been demonstrated with a number of really clever studies, and I'll focus on two of them now. The first one deals directly with attraction. Researchers started out by having undergrads rate the attractiveness of a number of different female volunteers, and from that pool, they chose women who undergrads had rated to be about equally attractive to one another. The researchers then had these volunteers attend a 200-person lecture course for either five, 10, or 15 class sessions. And while these women were attending the class, they were instructed not to do anything. They didn't answer questions, they didn't talk to anyone, and they tried not to stand out in any way. At the end of the semester, researchers put up pictures of these women, and asked the students in the class to rate them in terms of attractiveness. And what they found was that women who had attended the class 15 times were rated as significantly more attractive than the women who had attended five or 10 times. So it is pretty clear how the mere exposure effect, in combination with our tendency to only meet people who we live near, can lead to our thinking that the people who we see day-to-day are attractive and likeable. That said, to drive this point home, I want to talk about one more study. This is a study that was conducted with individuals who have anterograde amnesia. Normally when we think about amnesia, we're actually thinking about what's referred to as retrograde amnesia. And in that situation, we would have a person, and let's say that at age 25, that person got into a car accident, which I'll represent here with this x. And let's say that he suffers from some brain damage and that results in amnesia. According to the amnesia narrative that we're all familiar with, we would expect that our individual would lose all memory of life before the accident. And all of that is true with retrograde amnesia, but anterograde amnesia is actually the opposite. In this case, individuals are able to recall life events from before the incident that left them with amnesia. However, these individuals become incapable of forming new memories. So they can remember everything from before the accident, but they can't form any new memories from that point on. For the study that we're discussing here, researchers had individuals with anterograde amnesia come into the lab, where they showed them a number of faces. They didn't ask them to rate the faces or anything. They simply showed them the faces, and then they sent them home. These individuals then came back to the lab at a later date, and they were again shown a number of faces, and this included some of the faces that they had seen before, in addition to novel ones that they weren't shown the last time they were in the lab. And, of course, the first thing that they do is ask this individual if they have seen any of the faces before, and, of course, they say no. But when they're asked to pick out which one they think is the most attractive, they still pick out the face that they had seen before, even if they were literally incapable of forming a conscious memory that they had seen the face before. I find this to be absolutely fascinating, because it shows us how subtle this effect really is. And maybe you're just finding out about this research now, and I want to tell you about a group of people who have known about it for quite some time. And that's advertisers. And by now, it probably comes as no surprise to you that advertising companies depend on the mere exposure effect in order to sell you different products. While on the surface, on a conscious level, you may find advertisements to be incredibly annoying, the fact of the matter is that, regardless of how we feel about these advertisements, the more times we see a brand, the more likely we are to form a positive opinion about it, which is exactly why companies try to show you their logo at every chance they get.