There's a common principle behind ads that work, the fake news we believe, political campaigns that win, songs we eventually like. And this same principle is also the reason why we sometimes get stuck in our current ways.
SARICIK. RAJECKI. KADIRGA. NANSOMA. ZAJONC.
The strange words would appear on the blackboard every morning, without any explanation.
The university students who attended the class were mystified. The professor never acknowledged the words. One student later confessed that the words haunted his dreams…
After these mysterious words had been appearing on the blackboard for nine consecutive weeks, the students were given a survey containing a list of 14 foreign words. Interestingly, five of the words on the survey were the same as the ones on the blackboard.
The students were asked to rate their liking for each word. The researcher behind this 1972 study, Rick Crandall, discovered that the words the students had seen the most were the ones they preferred. In other words, liking increased with frequency of exposure.
Psychologists have been studying this phenomenon since. It came to be known as the "mere exposure" principle.
Simply put, it suggests that people tend to develop a preference for things that are familiar to them. Merely being exposed to something increases our positive perception of it. The more familiar something is to us, the more safe, comfortable, valuable and truthful we think it is.
Here are some examples of mere exposure in action
Advertising: Advertisers often utilize the mere exposure principle to promote their products. By repeatedly exposing consumers to their brand, logo, or jingle, they aim to increase familiarity and positive associations, ultimately influencing purchasing decisions.
Music: When a song is played frequently on the radio or in popular media, it becomes more familiar to listeners. As a result, people tend to develop a liking for the song due to its repeated exposure, even if they initially had no particular preference for it.
Fake news: The mere-exposure principle also extends to our perception of truth. The more exposed we get to a particular statement the more truthful we think it is. Repetition sparks trust.
Political Campaigns: Politicians often employ the mere exposure effect to gain voter support. By repeatedly showcasing their name, face, or campaign slogans through advertisements, signs, and media appearances, they aim to make themselves more familiar to the public, potentially influencing voter decisions.
Social Interactions: People tend to develop positive feelings toward others they frequently encounter, even if they have no significant prior relationship. Regular exposure to a person can increase familiarity and comfort, leading to more positive interactions and relationships.
At work, when we make decisions, we might think we’re choosing based on evidence, but sometimes that “evidence” may be just the feeling of familiarity - ideas we’ve come to like because we’ve seen them so much.
Adding to that, once we become familiar with something we hate to lose it (loss aversion) even if the alternative is more valuable. We’d rather stick with the status quo.
When you put these two forces together—the mere exposure principle and loss aversion—what you get is a powerful bias for the way things are today. Irrespective of how good or bad they are.
Organizational decisions that push for change are subject to a powerful emotional distortion.
When a leader proposes a change, however small, people feel two things:
Ack, that feels unfamiliar. (And thus uncomfortable.)
Ack, we’re going to lose what we have today. (And that is upsetting.)
However short-term these emotions may be they can steal the spotlight. That’s because present-moment emotions tend to be intense and sharp while the future feels fuzzier.
This gives too much power to what we feel now. Enough power to sway our decisions for the worse.
Decision tool: 10/10/10
To help keep our short-term emotions in perspective we can use the 10/10/10 tool invented by Suzy Welch. The tool is a simple set of 3 questions. It involves thinking about your decisions on three different time frames and asking yourself:
How will you feel about this decision 10 minutes from now?
How about 10 months from now?
How about 10 years from now?
Thinking in terms of three different time frames provides a way to get some distance and better perspective. It’s likely that the choice will be inconsequential or that you won’t even remember it was a big deal. Your answers can help you put things in perspective and rally the motivation you need to take action. The right action.
Imagine you're (back) in college
You're roommates with a close friend of yours and life is simply great.
But over time, you discover that living together sometimes takes a toll on your friendship. You start having little arguments and a lot of them are about dishwashing and cleaning.
You have a talk and initially things get better, before they quickly spiral downhill. The sink is full and you're the only one that seems to care.
You feel disappointed, angry, resentful.
You think about approaching him again but then dismiss the idea as a waste of time.
But then.... you apply the 10–10 rule!
10 minutes from now, I’ll feel bad because I’ll still be in emotional turmoil from the talk.
10 months from now, I’ll be glad I tried to save our friendship.
10 years from now, it could go either way: either it won't matter because our friendship didn’t last and I forgot about the situation. Or it would be great because we’d still be in contact and I’d have a buddy of ten years on my side.
With about two minutes of thinking, it becomes clear to you that you have to talk to him again. And your purpose is clear as well: it's not about being right and assuaging your nerves (short-term). It's about saving your friendship (long-term).
Take-aways for checking your present-moment emotions
Making smart decisions isn’t impossible.
But it requires a certain way of thought: avoiding the biased effects of short-term emotions and fleeting feelings and, instead, thinking long-term.
Often, our short-term emotions are telling us something useful about what we want in a situation. So we should not ignore them.
But we should not let them be the boss of us.
Try using the 10/10/10 tool to put some perspective on short-term emotions across situations (having a tough conversation, asking for a promotion, asking someone on a date...)