Lesser Known Elections and the Mere Exposure Effect

Our local, highly contested, primary campaigns are in full swing right now.  Every street corner is packed with signs, and every commercial break is packed with attack ads.  The races cover broad contests; from high profile races to the governor’s mansion and a federal congressional seat to little known seats on the school board and county council. 

So, when I looked over the sample ballot, there were a number of names that I didn’t know much about.  But, as I looked at those names, I realized that something grabbed me about some of them.  I recognized the name, and my mind told me to pick that person.  Then, I thought for a second.  Why did I recognize that name?  I had seen signs for the candidate, which told me nothing more than that they were running and had enough money in their coffers to afford laminated cardboard with their name.  What did I actually know about the candidate, other than a name?  Absolutely nothing. 

With this in mind, I did some research on some, and decided not to decide on a few others.  But the urge to vote for the familiar ones had been there, and it had been strong.  If I hadn’t bothered to look at the sample ballot, I can completely see how I could have just marked the ballot for them without thinking (and I believe that I have done this in the past). 

Turns out, psychologists have studied this phenomenon.  The “mere exposure effect” is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when people feel an affinity for people or things merely because they have seen them before.  It is completely illogical, and not based on any actual experience, positive or negative, only on the sense of familiarity that occurs. 

In the 1960’s, a researcher named Robert Zajonc exposed subjects to various stimuli, which should have other been neutral, and then tested their reactions to these stimuli compared to unfamilar ones.  The subjects rated the stimuli they had seen before more positively.  Researchers have found the effect to hold for a variety of different designs, words, symbols, and photographs.  It even works when the subject is exposed to the stimulus so quickly he or she does not conciously perceive it. 

Think you’re too smart for this?  Try it yourself here.  Or just think about it next time you go to vote, and you’re considering those “lesser known” elections.

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