You’ve probably heard the phrase many times before — familiarity breeds contempt. But today we’ll invert this idea and talk about how, very often unfamiliarity breeds contempt. The world is forever in search of novel ideas, but the chances of novel ideas being received well at the outset turn out to be actually very slim. Why? Because humans prefer the comfort of the familiar and are most receptive to images, ideas and activities that they have been exposed to at least a few times. Something entirely unheard of, a word a technique or an innovation hitherto unseen, does two things immediately. One, it makes us regard it with suspicion reserved naturally for ‘strangers’ and two, it brings out the sceptic in us, wondering if the idea would actually work.
However, repeated exposure over a period of time — nudging, not in-your-face persistent — increases our likeability of the thought or image, making it familiar and thereby more acceptable. In a very interesting and amusing experiment, people were shown photographs of themselves and their friends, and the images could be either regular or inverted, as in a mirror image. The results showed that people liked the ‘normal’ photos of their friends more, but preferred the mirror images of their own faces — because we never actually ‘see’ our own face, all we see is the image of ourselves in the mirror!
That amusing experiment perfectly reveals the human preference for the familiar. Robert Zajonc, the Polish-American pioneer of social psychology termed this as the ‘exposure effect.’ Zajonc, famous for his decades of wide-ranging work on social and cognitive processes—notably social facilitation and the Confluence Model—stated that the degree of exposure to an idea or entity has a considerable effect on how ‘likeable’ people find it. So the more you are exposed to a line of thought, the better your chances of being receptive to it. One of the important reasons for this phenomenon is defined as ‘ease of processing.’ The more familiar an idea, the less effort you need to put in processing and understanding it. Naturally, with less cognitive exercise to be done, the idea would become more appealing. Familiarity, ironically, breeds more comfort.
The second reason can be termed as the reminder effect. You are periodically being given information about said idea through various channels to restrict the chances of it being pushed to the backyards of your mind. Being consistently refreshed, the idea has already been planted as an acceptable way to view the world, an acceptable technique for a particular process. That is how media messaging works, that is how marketing and advertising works. Through the creation of familiarity, and constant reminders of the idea one needs to plant or the product one needs to sell.
So when one hits upon a novel idea that she or he desires to bring before the world, there is a need to infuse the novelty with a touch of the familiar. According to Justin Berg, the creativity expert at Stanford, the most promising ideas begin from novelty and then add familiarity. A really unique idea cannot go on adding more unfamiliarity, for that reduces its receptiveness quotient. Novelty padded with familiarity is the key, followed by periodic exposure for the intended audience or consumers in a balanced manner. In the end, of course, everything boils down to creating balance.
Zehra Naqvi