Psychologists call this the mere exposure effect. Essentially, the more familiar we become with something, the more we tend to like it or feel comfortable with it. This has positive repercussions. Has a person you didn’t initially get along with eventually ‘grown on you’? Did you used to hate broccoli? Did you think you didn’t like Taylor Swift until your wife convinced you to listen to her for an entire road trip? How much easier was your Zoom call yesterday than 11 months ago? Do you have quinoa in your pantry right now?
However, the mere exposure effect is not always constructive. For instance, do you like Tom Brady more or less after each Super Bowl? How do you feel about the company that airs the same commercial every fifteen minutes? On a scale of 1-10, what are your thoughts on snow right now? But the effect can be more adverse than dislike; it can create indifference, complacency. It normalizes things that should not be normal. Consider climate change. “Last year was the warmest on record” is a recurring phrase and, as a result, has lost its bite. Similarly, “X number of people died of COVID yesterday” blends into the background noise of our lives. The reporting of daily statistics is now familiar, and though we may not ‘like’ it, we have become comfortable with it. The mere exposure to these message has calloused us to their intended effects.
At its worst, the mere exposure effect can desensitize us to lies and misdirection. The more something is repeated, the more it is believed—whether or not it is true. This is the evil cousin of the mere exposure effect known as the illusory truth effect. How many times have you heard that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu? Even though it is not true, we have become accustomed to the comparison. Subconsciously it is more conceivable, more palatable. The rhetoric of the last presidential administration has made us—not by choice—more comfortable with deceit and purposeful distraction. Each twisted fact, baseless claim, and outright lie consistently spewed from the White House dulled our senses, numbing our reactions.
But the most hopeful outcome of the mere exposure effect is that it normalizes things that should be normal. The most salient example of this came watching the inauguration last month. During the ceremony, they mentioned how Kamala Harris was the first Black person, first Asian, and first woman to hold the office of Vice President. Further, she was sworn in by the first Latina on the Supreme Court. I was waiting for banners and confetti to drop. However, the coverage quickly moved to Joe Biden—the 46th consecutive male and—with the exception of Barack Obama—white president. At first, I was disappointed. It felt like the terrorist attack on the Capitol, coupled with four years of discord and dissension, overshadowed the magnitude of the moment. This was historic, this showed progress from a nation which, at other points over the past four years, seemed to be slipping backwards in time. We needed to be shouting this from the rooftops: Look what we can do, look how we have changed, how far we’ve come in the 100 years since the 19th Amendment was ratified.
However, these thoughts quickly shifted. Something isn’t normal if you have to announce it or point it out, and women Vice Presidents should be normal. We will be in a better place when this is not newsworthy, when we have a second, third, fourth women President, an umpteenth Black President, an ‘I-stopped-counting’ LGBTQ+ President. This important because the mere exposure to someone like you doing something you want to do instills confidence. Years ago I was given a book called What the Best College Teachers do. On the cover is a white middle-aged man with graying hair, and the author is also a middle-aged white man with graying hair. The takeaway: college professor is a profession for someone like me. I have been exposed to tailwinds like this my whole life, which makes me feel more comfortable pursuing this career. It feels not only achievable but expected.
Just as we had eight years to watch Barack Obama address the world as President of the United States, we now have four years to watch Kamala Harris as Vice President (and potentially President in 2025). The fact that it is already becoming less newsworthy shows we are on the right path. We don’t make a fuss over trivial things, we expect them, and President should a normal, achievable, even expected career path for every U.S. citizen.
Familiarity breeds comfort, and there are certainly things that seem crazy today but will one day seem mundane. Maybe Bud Lite will reboot their burger commercial with crickets replacing quinoa? Maybe Taylor Swift will be your most-listened-to-artist on Spotify next year? Maybe we’ll want to wear masks on a plane? But more importantly, the mere exposure effect can convey that what once seemed impossible is anything but. It can normalize what should be normal. Bug burgers can wait, but hopefully very soon we will not feel the need to count how many female or Black or Asian or Latina or LGBTQ+ people are CEOs or head coaches, members of Congress or members of SNL, or President of the United States.