Most of us are fortunate enough to be surrounded by things we like. There has to be something wrong with the man who lives with pictures on his wall he hates and a partner he despises, who eats food he dislikes and listens to music that gets on his nerves.
But do we surround ourselves with things we like or do we come to like the things we are surrounded by? Is the patriot lucky to live in the country he loves or does he love his country because he lives there? Children have very little choice in their lives, but most of them seem happy enough. I certainly preferred my mum’s cooking to that of others (except when she hid sprouts under my mashed potatoes).
I remember with retrospective embarrassment having dinner at an Italian friend’s house. His mum made her own pasta and I thought that I was being very charming when I told her how nice it was: almost as good as the Napolina that we ate at home. It turns out not to be luck, nor a strange operation of genetics, that most of us appreciate our mother’s cooking: being repeatedly exposed to something causes us to like it more.
In one of the ﬁrst experiments demonstrating this, Robert Zajonc asked people to read out loud a list of nonsense words (such as Iktitaf, Dilikli and Civadra) which he claimed were Turkish adjectives. Afterwards, he asked the participants which words they thought meant something good in Turkish, and which meant something bad.
Some of the words were in the list more frequently, and the more often they appeared, the more likely were the subjects to think that the words must mean something good. The effect that repetitive exposure to some stimulus can increase our liking of it has been found in hundreds of experiments.
Our taste for music and artwork increases as we hear and see them more often (though overexposure may invert the effect). Hearing an argument multiple times increases the chances that we’ll accept it. We may even like people more after seeing their image repeatedly (a piece of research that was presaged by numerous dictators).
Some scientists even caused volunteers to prefer one irregular octagon over another by showing it to them subliminally. But, as ever, the great masters of using this (as any other persuasive psychological) technique are advertisers.
Have you ever wondered why so many drink adverts fail to make any mention of taste, but just seem to be getting the brand image out there? Seeing the livery often can increase your liking of the sticky stuff in the bottle. The effect can be pimped by showing the brand in the context of people like you, people you'd like to be like, and people you'd like to be with.
Chris Paley is the author of Unthink, which has sold over 30,000 copies in English and been translated into five other languages.