Zajonc effect: The tendency of people, after repeated exposure to an unfamiliar thing, to reverse their initial feelings of dislike or distaste and like the thing more over time. Also called the Mere Exposure effect or the Mere Zajonc effect.
The Zajonc effect is named for Robert Boleslaw Zajonc (1923-2008), a Polish-born American social psychologist who taught at the University of Michigan and Stanford University. (His last name rhymes with “science.”) His obituary in the New York Times singled out his work with “mere exposure”:
In a seminal experiment, published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1968, he showed subjects a series of random shapes in rapid succession. The shapes appeared and disappeared so quickly that it was impossible to discern that some of them were actually repeated. Nevertheless, when subjects were later asked which shapes they found most pleasing, they reliably chose the ones to which they had been exposed the most often, though they had no conscious awareness of the fact.
Familiarity, in other words, breeds a kind of affection, Professor Zajonc found. Even before he defined and named it, the effect was dear to the hearts of advertisers and other shapers of culture.
The Zajonc effect has implications for branding and naming. Bruce Tait of the Minneapolis brand consultancy Tait Subler wrote about the connection in a 2012 blog post:
Let’s say you have five potential brand positioning strategies. In an effort to make the best decision, you quantitatively test the alternative strategies. People being people, they respond most negatively to the most unfamiliar — and differentiating — concept. They respond best to the strategy they’ve seen before. The one your competitor is using already. That’s the strategy you run with because it “won” in research… and another undifferentiated brand strategy is born.
Look around at famous marketing failures and they are often the ideas that tested the best. Some of the greatest successes tested terribly because they were different. It is a frustrating fact of marketing that the key ingredient to long-term brand success is differentiation but people are wired to respond negatively to a truly differentiating idea upon initial exposure.
(Hat tip: Anthony Shore.)
See also “Forget About Love,” my 2010 post comparing a successful corporate name to an arranged marriage.
Other eponymous effects discussed here in previous posts: Dunning-Kruger, Streisand, Bradley, Coolidge, Martha Mitchell, Droste, Forer, Fujiwhara, McGurk, Meisner.