Seeking the Familiar with a Twist

People prefer what is familiar to them. Scholars call this the “mere exposure effect.” Philosopher Bence Nanay explains: “The more you are exposed to something, the more you tend to like it. Just the mere exposure to something changes your preferences. And this happens even if you are not aware of what you are exposed to.” (Aesthetics: A Very Short Introduction, page 44). Someone that listens to classical music will likely find thrash metal jarring. At first, it would sound like mere noise to the untrained ear. Then, as that person becomes familiar with it, the thrash music would become less harsh to their ears, even if they still didn’t enjoy it.

In “The Four-Letter Code to Selling Just About Anything,” published in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson discusses the impact of the familiar, explaining the methods of Raymond Loewy. Sometimes considered the father of industrial design, Loewy came to the U.S. in 1919 to make a fresh start in New York. Loewy imagined New York as an elegant, stylish place, and he was surprised to find it “was a grungy product of the machine age.” He sought to change that.

Loewy would do more than almost any person in the 20th century to shape the aesthetic of American culture. His firm designed mid-century icons like the Exxon logo, the Lucky Strike pack, and the Greyhound bus.

Biz Coach | Inspiration from Raymond Loewy for the Best Business PR

Rather than elegance and design, Loewy found that people cared about one thing when he came to New York: efficiency. Eventually those in business began to embrace certain aesthetic features, even though that was motivated by financial gains.

It took executives like Alfred Sloan, the CEO of General Motors, to see that by, say, changing a car’s style and color every year, consumers might be trained to crave new versions of the same product. To sell more stuff, American industrialists needed to work hand in hand with artists to make new products beautiful—even “cool.”

Loewy perceived that people wrestle with two antagonistic forces: “neophilia, a curiosity about new things; and neophobia, a fear of anything too new. As a result, they gravitate to products that are bold, but instantly comprehensible.” Loewy labelled this theory about people’s preferences MAYA: “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.” The core idea can be summarized as this: “to sell something surprising, make it familiar; and to sell something familiar, make it surprising.”

This idea is based on the “mere-exposure effect” (mentioned above), which developed in the 1960s by psychologist Robert Zajonc. He showed people a series of random nonsense words, and throughout multiples studies, people always gravitated to the ones that they had seen the most. Similar studies showed that people assume a positive meaning for words that they don’t know (in another language), when they have seen them more frequently.So, we prefer what is familiar.

However, that is not the complete story, as most people have heard a song so much that they can no longer tolerate it. We get sick of hearing the same buzzwords over and again. “In mere-exposure studies, the preference for familiar stimuli is attenuated or negated entirely when the participants realize they’re being repeatedly exposed to the same thing. For that reason, the power of familiarity seems to be strongest when a person isn’t expecting it.”

Loewy advocated a way of thinking about design that is largely populist. He thought you should design for the largest mass of people. To do this, the designer must possess a knowledge of what is familiar. Loewy proposed modernizing the design of locomotive trains, making them look more bullet-shaped. At first, people scoffed at most of his proposed designs, but he knew that becoming familiar with these designs would eventually help them accept these “more progressive designs.” In order to perfect his designs, he studied locomotives and rode hundreds of miles on them. He interviewed engineers, crew members, and other people. And he eventually helped Pennsylvania Railroad design the GG-1, “an electric locomotive covered in a single welded-steel plate.” And this became the standard design for trains.

What was once radical had become maya, and what was once maya has today become the unremarkable standard.

Thompson ends his article by asking whether Loewy’s notion of maya could serve as a cultural critique. Ever wonder why it feels like movies are regurgitating the things? Thompson cites that, at the time of writing, 15 of the highest grossing films of the previous 16 years were all sequels of some other successful film. The Marvel Comic Universe has spawned 30 films since 2007. Many popular TV shows on channels like FX are merely using successful or popular stories from the past, but they add their own creative ideas to the mix. The executive vice president of FX, Nicole Clemens claims that Sons of Anarchy is a motorcycle version of Hamlet; and The Americans subvert the traditional aspects of the spy genre to tell a story about marriage.

This concern about familiarity guiding us is not limited to cultural entities. Physicist Max Planck said, “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” And this combination of the familiar with the new affects grant proposals, which was studied in 2014 by a team from Harvard University and Northeastern University. The most novel proposals got the worst ratings.

We often believe that we make rational or intentional decisions about clothing, music, careers, and so on. But we are constantly bombarded with some of the same images and ideas, and these affect our attitudes. While we can’t always control things we perceive in the public sphere, we can control how we expand our horizons on our own.

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