Familiarity Principle – Poor Decision Making

We prefer things that we have known from the past, and our preference increases as our exposure does.

The first time I visited a Japanese restaurant, I took a look at the menu. I had never eaten Japanese. I realized that I did not know any of the dishes and items were all Japanese! (all incomprehensible).

I did not know what to order. But in the corner, I noticed something which mentioned rice. Finally, something I was familiar with. And then I ordered that (with ‘I know Japanese food’ look, & frankly I did not know what sushi, sashimi, nigiri or maki was then).

When the rice arrived, I remembered how much I like rice. This liking increased after I finished my meal.

My decision to order a dish I was familiar with, and the increased love for rice, was a result of the mere exposure effect. We prefer things that we have known from the past, and our preference increases as our exposure does. This liking increased after I finished my meal.

The mere exposure effect describes our inclination to prefer things simply because we are familiar with them. Hence, it is also called the familiarity principle.

Where this bias occurs

  • Individual effects

The effect itself can lead to less than optimal decisions. Reliable decisions are made by evaluating all possible actions based on their effectiveness, not their knowledge. When deciding between alternatives, we do not have to choose a known option, but the best option. This is because sometimes the best options are not the best known. Sometimes the most effective actions are those we don’t know about. Additionally, holding on to what we know limits our contact with new things, ideas and perspectives. This limits the scope of decisions we can and want to consider in future decisions and the perspective from which we make those decisions.

Furthermore, sticking with what we recognize, restricts our knowledge to new things & experiences. This restricts the variety of choices we are able and ready to consider when making decisions and limits the outlook from which we make them.

Take the example above. Although I am happy with my decision to eat rice, I can learn more from the experience of new ethnic dishes. Maybe, I not only enjoy eating sushi but I am also exposed to a new culture in gastronomy – valuable new experiences that can enrich my understanding of Japanese food and culture.

  • Systemic effects

When these effects extended to the public or institutions, the results can be harsher. A company that prefers its existing business model because management is comfortable with it may ignore the organizational and technological changes required to look at a new direction. Governments have the same problem, and this may lead to a disconnect with the changing requirements of the public. Academic disciplines that are based around a certain philosophy can dispel the useful inferences exemplified by nonconformist theories.

These biases can also help create social norms and buttress social stereotypes. We are more likely to adopt ideas that we encounter repeatedly. This can make our perception of these ideas easier, which can be dangerous at times. A 2008 study found that being exposed to people of Asian descent caused participants to develop positive attitudes towards other Asians. This shows that the level and type of exposure to different ethnic groups affects their perceptions in society. It is recognized that minority populations are less prominent in Western media and can lead to a negative view of them.

Why does it happen?

Without realizing it, the effects of mere exposure can happen subliminally. The effect is stronger when we don’t know about the stimulus.

There are the main reasons why we experience the mere exposure effect:

  • Reduces uncertainty – Familiarity reduces doubts, and we are more sure of something. By experience, we are usually wary of new things and take precautions expecting it to be dangerous for us. When we see encounter something repeatedly, it makes us think it is safer. In the recent COVID pandemic, in the initial days, few people came out of their houses, as they did not know the details. Now even though there are more cases, more people are out on the streets. 
  • Facilitates understanding and interpretation – “perceptual eloquence,” we can better understand and interpret things that we have seen before. We usually read a complex story again and it becomes familiar as the basic storyline and characters are familiar. We can comprehend the story even better the second time around as the brain takes less time to process. We are wired to take the easy way out and we will prefer the situations we have faced before. 

How it all started

In the 19th century, German psychologist Gustav Fechner, and English psychologist Edward Titchener wrote of a “glow of warmth” felt in the presence of something familiar. It was investigated further by an American social psychologist Robert Zajonc in 1968. Zajonc tested how people responded to made-up words and Chinese characters. They were shown the characters many times and were then tested on their attitudes towards them. It was found that people who were shown the characters were more favourably disposed than the ones who were not. 

Examples

  • Finance and domestic investment

Investors prefer to invest in domestic companies because they are familiar with them even if it is less profitable or less risky. 

To spread risks & to increase profits, it is advisable to invest internationally too but generally, the investments are in their home countries. Also called the home country bias and came out of different stimuli like media coverage, regular face-to-face interaction etc.

  • Journal ranking in academia

Researchers who previously published or worked for a particular journal rated them higher than those who did not, and the perception of the journal greatly depended on how familiar they were with the researcher.

Why avoid?

Often, existing alternatives are not the best. Due to familiarity, we miss out on new stimuli/ alternatives. Giving more importance to familiarity is detrimental. This has been seen in elections where people endorse candidates who have more media time. This happens to companies too who do not use new technology as they are familiar with existing ones.  

From a personal angle, if we are against new experiences/ stimuli, it will stunt our growth. At times, we will be put in a new set of circumstances wherein we will not know how to react.  

How to avoid it

The effect may counteract itself. If we are exposed for too long to certain stimuli then we may miss something new or avoid it. A study identified this as “boredom” with stimulation. Music is a good example – initially, you may love a song and hear it many times over. But with time, you get bored with it and don’t listen to it. 

We should look at new experiences regularly and be experimentative. This is the way our brain works. We don’t restrict ourselves to familiar stimuli.

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