The Mere Exposure Effect

Why do some of us replay the same song over and over, until we feel good again? Our brain releases dopamine when we hear a song that we’ve heard a few times already.  This feel-good effect is fantastic with feel good songs especially as we get older and the memories of when we first heard the old song make us feel young again.

The converse would mean that if we are feeling down we tend to listen to the blues to match our mournful mood. This was probably understood by the screen writers of the 1994 TV drama series, ‘Party of Five’ where Scott Wolf as Bailey Salinger; (ages 16–22, 1994-2000) the second-born sibling in the family of five, is forced to grow up fast and deal with life after his parents’ death. When the character, Bailey, can no longer cope with the pressures of the family restaurant and cheating in a test he struggles with alcoholism, with a poignant moment, mid-episode in the late 90s where he sits at a bar and nurses a drink while using a jukebox to re-play the REM song from 1985, “Losing my religion”. The lyrics, “That’s me in the corner, that’s me in the spotlight,” focus on Bailey slumped and depressed looking stuck and miserable. Since watching that episode, whenever I hear that song, I picture Bailey at the bar. Sometimes I can relate to his evident sense of failure and I am prompted to re-play the song just like he did.


What is The Mere Exposure Effect?

The mere exposure effect whether conscious or subliminal is a deliberate attempt to get you to like something by showing it to you often, which is why our freeways and byways suffer visual pollution with endlessly repeated billboards and trailer outdoor advertising signage. In the approach to elections in South Africa I was phoned by political party representatives and one of the questions I was asked was whether I had seen posters for that party in my neighbourhood. I answered, no, and wondered about the phone call, but what happened afterwards was that I actually noticed all the political posters and election slogans as I drove past them on major roads. When election day came and the queues were long, voters were reassured by the mere exposure effect of seeing the many pale blue shirts of IEC election officials and observers checking on things, giving updates if there was a delay and helping the elderly and infirm to the front of the queue.

On a more constructive note, frequent exposure to the right way of using English should improve our own use of English. Sometimes it is useful to have someone actually specifically point out how you can improve the way in which you use English in your writing. This is what I offer in the Wits DigitalCampus course, Business Communication Skills. Every course on Wits Digital Campus has unit and module questions and assignments every week to help our students test their skills and check that they are mastering the skills. These are multiple choice or true-false questions designed with academic rigour to be instantly marked by the computer platform so that students get quick feedback.


Business Communication Skills: What Makes The Course Unique

What sets the Business Communication Skills course apart is the alternate weeks in which students get to write paragraphs to open questions. This not only gives the student experience in academic writing and referencing but gives them the opportunity for Nicky to identify the areas that they need to focus on to improve their use of English. The most frequently encountered grammar errors are the use of the definite and indefinite articles, the form of the verb (tenses and concord) and the use of prepositions.

Instead of just overlooking technical language problems which cause semantic barriers in the workplace as well as undermining the professionalism of the writer, Nicky zooms in on what can be improved and advises each student how they themselves can improve their writing. The rest is, of course, up to the student, but ideally if they have “preposition use” highlighted, then they can Google this and learn the grammar rules as well as do online worksheets to reinforce what they learn. Some students continue to make mistakes in their writing if they don’t make the necessary intervention, but with the mere exposure effect, Nicky finds that after 10 weeks on the short course, getting their work corrected every second week and re-reading their corrected answers, most students are much more proficient by the time they write the examination at the end of the course.


What the Learners Achieve

Some students have remarked that their line managers have been pleased with the improvement in their emails and other correspondence, indicating appreciation for the corrections. Others have wished that they had been taught correct grammar when they were younger but are grateful to have a chance to improve their writing now when they are at an age and job level expecting promotion. They realise that poor grammar undermines how they are regarded by senior management. It could be said that the mere exposure effect of seeing your own writing corrected will eventually serve to help you improve your writing in English.

Join hundreds of Wits online graduates and register for Business Communication Skills to improve the way in which you communicate and in particular the way in which you write English. Be proactive and make the naysayers change their tune when they think of you if they underestimated your ability to be promoted to more senior management. When you get that promotion, you’ll get a rush as good as the dopamine effect of mere exposure, just make it happen for yourself.