Why and When the Familiar Feels Good

4 min read
DanaTentis / Pixabay

Source: DanaTentis / Pixabay

Imagine it’s New Year’s Eve, and your resolution for the next 12 months is to save money by not eating out for the next year or to improve your health by giving up beer. Do you try that new restaurant with rave reviews for its innovative cuisine, or do you go with an old favorite?

Do you order that new IPA beer your friend told you about, or do you stick with your usual brew? Yuji Winet and Ed O’Brien (2023) asked people questions like these in a series of recent experiments.

They found that when faced with these choices, the tried-and-true becomes more appealing than when people’s future experiences aren’t limited in these ways. Although we crave new experiences, the researchers found that our attraction to the familiar increases when faced with limited opportunities to experience something.

The Mere Exposure Effect

Familiarity can be a powerful thing. In a series of classic experiments, Robert Zajonc (1968; 1980; 1993) showed that repeatedly exposing people to unfamiliar stimuli, such as Mandarin characters presented to non-Mandarin speakers, increased their liking of them. He found the same things for pieces of art and even shapes.

Zajonc dubbed this phenomenon the “mere exposure effect.” This effect helps explain why record companies sometimes pay radio stations and other broadcasters to put new songs into heavy rotation, a practice known as “payola,” and why film studios blanket the airwaves with trailers for new movies shortly before their release. It also helps explain how we make friends. Experiments by Harry Reis and his colleagues (2011) have found that when two strangers interact in a lab and have longer conversations, they report liking each other more than when those conversations are shorter.

Why Does the Familiar Feel Good?

Why is the familiar so appealing? One explanation is that it takes less mental effort to process the interaction when encountering someone or something familiar. Our mental capacities are large but not infinite.

As a result, humans tend to conserve mental energy when they can. Familiar stimuli tend to be easier to process than novel ones. We know what to expect from a park, restaurant, or person we know well.

And at a more basic level, familiar stimuli are more “perceptually fluent,” or easier to process, than new ones. This fluency tends to put us in a good mood, which may explain why we like familiar things (Reber, Winkielman, & Schwarz, 1998).

Another reason to prefer the familiar has to do with our evolved psychology. Our minds are designed, among other things, to keep us safe from potential environmental threats. Drawing on this logic, generally, a place, a person, or a food we’ve encountered repeatedly without being harmed should be preferred compared to new ones whose potential to help or hurt us is unknown (Borenstein, 1989).

The Goldilocks Principle of Familiarity

But there can be a limit to the link between familiarity and liking. A recent meta-analysis of decades of studies on the mere exposure effect finds that too much familiarity can decrease liking (Montoya et al., 2017). Repeated exposures tend to increase liking up to a point, but then the effect reverses. Think of an upside-down letter “U,” and you have a pretty good picture of this relationship.

Think about your favorite food. Perhaps it’s cheeseburgers, or foie gras, or poke bowls. Would you like some for dinner? Now imagine this would be your dinner every night for six months.

Over time, research suggests you eat smaller and smaller amounts of it. Some have suggested this might be a very effective weight-loss strategy (Epstein et al., 2009).

Humans, like other organisms, tend to habituate to stimuli over time. Thus, although we may prefer the familiar, we risk becoming bored or desensitized in many circumstances if we overdo it.

Who Prefers the Familiar?

Another factor affecting our preference for familiarity is how much we’ve moved around (Oishi et al., 2012). Compared to those who’ve moved less frequently, people higher in “residential mobility” are more likely to prefer national chains like Chili’s or Whole Foods than independent businesses or regional chains.

They also show stronger mere exposure effects in experimental settings. Why might this be? Shige Oishi, the lead author of these studies, argues that “finding oneself in a ‘strange land’ evokes the desire for familiar objects.”


Sometimes, we are drawn to the excitement of the new. But other times, we crave the comfort of the familiar. A growing body of psychology research can help us understand when and why.

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