The Mere-Exposure Effect

by Ted Kaye, Vexilloid Tabloid #56

The mereexposure effect is a psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them.  In social psychology, this effect is sometimes called the “familiarity principle”.

I recently learned of this term, and the concept which it describes.  It puts a name to a challenge faced by anyone trying to update or change an established flag design.

As the “year of the flag” turns  into a new year, with flag redesign efforts multiplying at the city and state level across the U.S., it’s heartening to have a well-researched descriptive theory to explain why people can be so resistant to flag change.

The effect has been demonstrated with many kinds of things, including words, Chinese characters, paintings, pictures of faces, geometric figures, and sounds—so it is not surprising that it would apply to flags as well.

In my explanation of the Oregon flag redesign project of 2008–09,  I described people’s preference for a flag, no matter how poorly designed, as the “ugly baby phenomenon”—using the analogy that every mother loves her baby, no matter how ugly, because she is accustomed to it and it is her very own.

Such a comfortable and proprietary relationship can cloud aesthetic judgment.  Citizens of a city or state (or even a country) can feel the same way about their flags.  But unlike mothers, cities, states, and countries can change their flags.

As Fiji restarts its flag redesign effort (the second round of public submissions is due by 29 February), and New Zealand approaches the culmination of its own process (the public referendum on the  proposed new flag versus the current flag ends 24 March), the mere-exposure effect may well help explain the reaction of the public to these initiatives.

[thanks to Wikipedia for the description of this concept.]

Robert Zajonc. Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

For those interested in Robert Zajonc’s foundational 1968 paper “Attitudinal effects of mere exposure” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, it can be found here.  What’s more, there’s a local angle — Zajonc opens with this news story from Oregon:

On February 27, 1967, the Associated Press carried the following story from Corvallis, Oregon:

A mysterious student has been attending a class at Oregon State University for the past two months enveloped in a big black bag. Only his bare feet show. Each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 11:00 A.M. the Black Bag sits on a small table near the back of the classroom. The class is Speech 113— basic persuasion. . . . Charles Goetzinger, professor of the class, knows the identity of the person inside. None of the 20 students in the class do. Goetzinger said the students’ attitude changed from hostility toward the Black Bag to curiosity and finally to friendship [emphasis added].

To see where the story leads from there, read the article.

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