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Mere exposure: Your community’s best tool

March 4, 2013

The familiar is comforting.  Fact.  Popularized by Robert B. Zajonc, social psychologist, in 1960s.

In one experiment, he even showed that you can be made to like chinese symbols you don’t understand just by looking at them a few times.  Here’s how that went down.

Seeing is liking

He took 12 chinese symbols, and started showing them to the subjects.  An “exposure” was two seconds of passively looking at the symbol, and the subject was exposed to each symbols somewhere between 0 and 25 times.  Then, Zajonc asked them to rate how positive the meaning  of that word was.  It turns out, the more you are exposed to a meaningless symbol, the more you like it.

liking via exposure

Unless you hate it already

Of course, there are caveats to this.  If you initially dislike the target, repeated exposure will cause you to dislike it even more.  Additionally, when the subjects are told that the symbols they are about to see have negative connotations in Chinese, the graph resembles an upside-down U; 0 and 25 have the worst ratings, with the best somewhere in the middle.  Finally, an extreme number of exposures (around 200 over the course of the experiment) will make subjects dislike the neutral stimuli (lost the citation, sorry).

How to like your neighbors

1.  To like your neighbor, you must first see them.

This is rule number one of the mere exposure principle.  Within reasonable bounds, more exposure means more liking.  Thus, a good urban design means that you should run into the same person multiple times a week, by accident.  The more people that happens with, the more people you will show positive affect (liking) towards.

There are benefits to this that stretch beyond mere exposure (reducing the perceived cost and increasing the perceived benefit of creating a social bond), but those are for another post.

2.  You can’t start off hating them

If you first question about someone is which political party they’re affiliated with, then your chances of liking your neighbor plummet.  However, as we get people out of their isolation, talking to people more than listening to fear mongers the news, this problem will become less of an issue.

3.  You can’t see them too much

If you’re stuck in the same house with someone all day, then they become like the chinese symbol you’ve seen 200 times… annoying.  A good urban design will make you run into a medium number of people a medium amount, not a small number of people a large amount.  This had the added benefit of giving you choice about with whom you create your social bonds.

Specifics please

How exactly should you create this environment?  My best bet is on an Urban Retreat.  You can find a primer at the end of this article, but there are more details on the way.

(edited March 4th, 2013 at 3:14pm CST in order to add a link to Zajonc’s study and make the methodology description more accurate)


From → urban planning

  1. What we hear from people living in suburbs, often, goes against some of this. People want privacy and they don’t want people to know so much of their business. They often suspect their neighbors of caring too much about (and judging) their affairs. One of the most common things people do in suburbs is to move out of them when they can. They want more space, less contact, more privacy. I’m not saying that this is true for everyone, just that it is common. A Chinese character is something I look at, not something I am required to interact with.

  2. Strangely enough, when I’ve been in a population-dense environment, I was much less worried about what my neighbors thought of me. This is anecdotal, of course, but it’s possible that the fact that people feel intruded upon by their suburban neighbors isn’t due to them being “too close”… it’s more due to the nature of suburbia and the irrational fears engendered by this new, isolating way of living.

    For the chinese characters, that seems to be a common objection. The result has been shown to be extensible to brands and, in a strange experiment, a student who came to class every day wearing a giant black bag (thus obscuring previous associations students may have had with him, and creating a blank (though initially off-putting) slate).

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