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The Double-Edged Sword: Mere Exposure Effect and Workplace Bias

The mere exposure effect, our tendency to favor things simply because we’re familiar with them, plays a significant role in the workplace. Surprisingly, this psychological principle has a significant impact in the workplace, influencing everything from colleague relationships to product adoption. That being said, the workplace is not always impacted in a positive way. While it can foster rapport and acceptance of new ideas, it can also exacerbate existing biases. Let’s look at both sides here.

The Science Behind Familiarity

Research by Robert Zajonc in 1968 established the mere exposure effect. Studies have shown that repeated exposure to stimuli, even neutral or subliminal ones, can lead to a more positive evaluation. This effect is thought to be driven by a couple of key factors:

  • Cognitive Fluency: Repeated exposure makes processing information easier and less mentally demanding. Our brains are wired to conserve energy. When processing information requires less mental effort, it triggers a feeling of comfort and satisfaction; and things that are familiar feel safe and predictable. Cognitive fluency leverages this by presenting information in a way that feels recognizable and easy to grasp, fostering a sense of trust in the information source. This ease of processing translates into a more favorable impression.
  • The Associative Learning Model: Repeated exposure can lead to positive associations. For example, if you consistently have productive meetings with a colleague in a specific conference room, you might start to view that room more positively. Another example: by pairing positive reinforcement with desired behaviors during onboarding, new hires can quickly learn company culture, expectations, and essential skills.

The Mere Exposure Effect in Action

The mere exposure effect plays a role in various aspects of the workplace:

  • Building Rapport with Colleagues: As you interact with colleagues more frequently, you become more familiar with their personalities, work styles, and sense of humor. This familiarity can foster trust, understanding, and ultimately, stronger working relationships.
  • Employee Onboarding: New hires are bombarded with information during onboarding. Repeating key information and processes during the initial training period can leverage the mere exposure effect, making it easier for them to retain knowledge and feel comfortable in their new role.
  • Customer Interactions: Salespeople often leverage the mere exposure effect by following up with potential customers consistently. Repeated, non-intrusive interactions can keep the company at the forefront of the customer’s mind, increasing the likelihood of a sale.
  • Product Adoption: Introducing a new software program or company policy can be met with resistance. By providing opportunities for employees to interact with the new system or policy through training sessions or pilot programs, familiarity can increase, leading to greater acceptance and adoption.

Harnessing the Power of Familiarity

Understanding the mere exposure effect can be beneficial for both employers and employees:

  • Leaders: Create opportunities for team building exercises and social events to foster familiarity and rapport among colleagues.
  • Trainers: Repeat key information and processes during training sessions to enhance knowledge retention.
  • Salespeople: Develop a well-defined follow-up strategy to keep the company top-of-mind for potential customers.
  • Employees: Lead with openness to new ideas and processes. Before forming an opinion, allow yourself to become familiar with and develop a sense of understanding of the newly proposed process/idea.

And of course on the flipside of this, the mere exposure effect can create some unintentional bias.

The Biasing Effect of Familiarity:

  • In-Group Favoritism: We tend to view familiar faces and personalities more favorably. This can lead to unconscious bias towards colleagues who share our background, experiences, or work style. Promotion decisions or project allocations might be influenced by this in-group preference. During meetings or project allocation, unconscious bias may lead to favoring ideas or contributions from in-group members, even if an out-group member presents a stronger option.
  • Out-Group Bias: The flip side of in-group favoritism is a bias against unfamiliar groups. This can manifest in overlooking qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds or harboring negative stereotypes about unfamiliar work styles. Résumés from candidates with unfamiliar backgrounds or names might even be unconsciously disregarded during the initial screening process.


  • A manager consistently assigns challenging projects to a team member from their alma mater, overlooking a qualified candidate from a different university.
  • A close-knit group of colleagues always goes to lunch together, rarely inviting others from different departments.
  • During a brainstorming session, a team readily accepts an idea from a well-liked colleague but hesitates with a similar suggestion from a newer team member.

Consequences of Bias:

  • Reduced Employee Morale and Engagement: Feeling overlooked or excluded can lead to decreased motivation, job dissatisfaction, and ultimately, higher turnover.
  • Loss of Talent and Creativity: When out-group members’ contributions are undervalued, companies miss out on valuable perspectives and hinder innovation.
  • Negative Work Environment: Bias can create a tense and uncomfortable work environment, impacting collaboration and productivity.

Navigating the Bias Maze:

Mitigating the negative impacts of the mere exposure effect on workplace bias requires a proactive approach:

  • Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives: Creating a diverse workforce and fostering genuine interaction between different groups can help break down stereotypes and build familiarity with out-groups.
  • Structured Hiring Practices: Implementing standardized interview processes with clear criteria can minimize the influence of personal biases on hiring decisions.
  • Blind Reviews: Blinding resumes or proposals during the evaluation stage can help ensure candidates are assessed based on their qualifications, not familiarity.
  • Self-Awareness Training: Equipping employees with unconscious bias training can help them recognize how familiarity can influence their decision-making. Encourage self-reflection and open discussions about potential biases.
  • Mentorship Programs: Connecting experienced employees with mentees from diverse backgrounds can increase exposure and understanding, fostering positive relationships and career development opportunities.

Beyond Mere Exposure: Building Bridges of Understanding

While familiarity breeds fondness, it shouldn’t be the sole factor driving our evaluations and interactions in the workplace. By acknowledging the potential pitfalls of the mere exposure effect and implementing proactive strategies, we can create a more inclusive and equitable work environment where talent and potential, not just familiarity, pave the way for success.


  • Mere exposure can be a double-edged sword. While it fosters rapport, it can also exacerbate bias.
  • Proactive diversity and inclusion initiatives are crucial to counter bias and create a level playing field.
  • Self-awareness training and structured processes can help mitigate unconscious bias based on mere exposure.

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