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HERO Skills Challenge: Breaking Bad Bias – The Mere Exposure Effect

"A River Runs Through It was my downfall," I say with a chuckle, reflecting on the unexpected journey from complete fly-fishing indifference to an undeniable passion that has had me wading through rivers across North America. It's a curious tale, really, of how a film not only cast a line into the bubbling streams of my life but managed to reel me into a world I barely knew existed.


You see, before this cinematic intervention, my idea of interacting with rivers involved little more than occasionally admiring a painting that happened to have a river in it. Fly-fishing? What’s that? How do catch a fish with a fly? I don’t even like flies. Some make it a hobby. I relegated fly-fishing to the same category as bird watching or rock finding—interesting for others, perhaps, but not for me. Yet, there I was, not long after watching Brad Pitt make casting look like an art form, stepping into a fly shop with a peculiar mix of “what am I doing here” and “this could be interesting.” I felt a little like a fish out of water (pun intended) amidst the array of rods, reels, and other gear that told me this would not be an inexpensive endeavor.


Each visit to these shops, from the quaint little corners in Ada, Michigan, near my home, to the expansive outfitters beside the rippling waters of the San Juan River in New Mexico, and even those nestled in the stunning landscapes of British Columbia by the Elk River, became chapters in my journey from skepticism to fascination. With every step into these sanctuaries of the sport, my reservations were gently eroded away by the stories of camaraderie, adventure, and the Zen-like state that many enthusiasts say come with the art of fly-fishing.


And then came the rivers themselves. Each one, with its unique character—from the serene flow of the Rogue River in Michigan, that always tested my casting accuracy, to the lively currents of the San Juan, teaching lessons in patience and persistence, and the majestic presence of the Elk River, offering solace and a sense of belonging to God’s creation—became a classroom for life. Standing in these waters, surrounded by nature's grandeur, I found a connection not just to the sport but to an inner self I often neglect.


The transformation was as surprising as it was profound. What began as a mild curiosity, sparked by a film's portrayal of fly-fishing, blossomed into a full-blown passion with each cast, each river, and each fish that I released after an engagement with my fly. This cultivated interest, nurtured through repeated exposure to the nuances of the sport and the waters I explored, stands as a testament to a cognitive bias called the mere exposure effect.


With my fly-fishing story as our catalyst, let’s explore how the mere exposure effect can turn the new and unfamiliar into sources of joy and passion. Often difficult, giving the new and different a chance can lead to unexpected adventures and discoveries, reminding us of the endless possibilities that await when we step out of our comfort zones and open ourselves to the world around us. Join me, won't you, as we dive into the fascinating currents of the mere exposure effect, guided by the gentle tug of a fly line on the water.


What is the Mere Exposure Effect?

The mere exposure effect is a cognitive bias that simply suggests that people tend to develop positive affect for things with repeated exposures. In this case familiarity breeds not contempt but contentment. This psychological phenomenon unfolds intriguingly across different dimensions of understanding:


  • Psychological Perspective: At its core, this effect hinges on the human psyche's tendency to favor the known over the unknown, a principle that can turn the once foreign into the familiar and even the cherished.


  • Human Behavioral Science Perspective: From the lens of human behavior, the mere exposure effect underscores how our interactions and environments shape our preferences. Repeated exposure to certain stimuli, be they hobbies, music, or even people, gradually warms us up to them, influencing our choices and affinities.


  • Neuroscience Perspective: Neurologically, familiarity fosters contentment. Our brains are wired to respond positively to repeated stimuli (that does not cause us harm), reducing cognitive strain and generating a sense of comfort and preference over time. This neural shortcut means that the more we're exposed to something, the more we tend to like it.


The Mere Exposure Effect in Action

  • At the Workplace: Imagine the new software that felt cumbersome at first but now feels indispensable. Or the new and different employee that your brain approaches with caution and is now a trusted friend. This transition is the mere exposure effect at work, turning initial resistance into liking through familiarity and repeated exposure.


  • At Home: Consider the stack of mystery novels left behind by a friend, untouched for months because "I’m more of a non-fiction person," slowly becomes the go-to reading material. What began as a begrudging curiosity to pass the time has sparked a newfound passion for whodunnits, proving that exposure not only breeds familiarity but also can turn a skeptic into a detective novel aficionado. This shift from indifference to admiration is a classic illustration of the effect, highlighting how repeated exposure can deepen our appreciation for book genres, music, and even people.


HERO Skills to the Rescue

Given my journey from a fly-fishing skeptic to avid cheerleader, it's evidence that the HERO Skills—Humility, Empathy, Reflection, and Open-mindedness—offer a valuable framework for leveraging the mere exposure effect in overcoming biases and embracing new experiences.


  • Humility reminds us not only of our limits, but also the value in the other, whether the other is a person or new sport. It prompts us to remain open to the possibility that our initial disinterest or disdain for something can, given the chance through repeated exposure, can evolve into appreciation with time and familiarity.


  • Empathy allows and invites us to understand and share the feelings of others, fostering a deeper connection to experiences and perspectives outside our own.


  • Reflection encourages us to ponder our journey of preference changes, of past encounters with the new and novel and how and why our attitudes transform with repeated exposure.


  • Open-mindedness challenges us to step beyond our comfort zones, inviting new experiences and perspectives with a willingness to see where repeated encounters might lead us.


Last Cast

As we reel in our exploration of the mere exposure effect, it's clear this cognitive bias offers far more than a simple explanation for our evolving tastes and preferences. It stands as a testament to the human capacity for change, growth, and discovery. My own journey from a casual viewer of "A River Runs Through It" to a passionate fly-fisher underscores a broader narrative: when we give the new, the novel, the different a chance, when we step beyond the familiar shores of our experiences into the uncharted waters of the unknown, we open ourselves to a world brimming with possibilities.


This journey is not merely about acquiring new hobbies or preferences but about embracing the profound transformations that can occur when we allow ourselves to be exposed to and engage with the world in its diverse entirety. The mere exposure effect, in essence, is a call to learning, adventure, growth. It’s a reminder to courageously encounter the unfamiliar with an open heart and mind, ready to find beauty and interest in people and places we least expect.


The HERO Skills—Humility, Empathy, Reflection, and Open-mindedness—serve not just as guides on this journey but as the very tools we need to navigate the complexities of our changing landscapes of preference and bias. These skills empower us to:


  • Approach the unfamiliar with Humility, acknowledging that there is always more to learn and discover.


  • Cultivate Empathy by genuinely striving to understand and appreciate the diverse experiences and perspectives that shape the world around us.


  • Engage in Reflection about our own processes of change and growth, recognizing the factors that influence our dynamic preferences.


  • Practice Open-mindedness by actively seeking out and embracing new experiences, ideas, and beliefs, even those that challenge our existing worldviews.


Now, the challenge I extend to you, is both simple and profound: give the new and novel a chance. Whether it's a genre of music you've never truly listened to, a cuisine you've yet to taste, a hobby you've never considered, or a perspective that contrasts sharply with your own, approach it with curiosity and openness. Seek out opportunities to engage the unfamiliar, not as a passive observer but as an active participant.


This challenge is not about immediate transformation or sudden epiphanies. Instead, it's about setting the stage for gradual, meaningful change—about planting the seeds of curiosity and watch them grow through ongoing encounters with a world filled with novelty right around the corner. It's about allowing the mere exposure effect to work its subtle magic, transforming an unknown activity into a passionate hobby, the different person into your dearest friend.


So, step into the river of the new and the novel. Cast your line into the waters of the unknown. Who knows what passions, preferences, and perspectives await discovery? By giving the new and novel a chance, you're not just opening yourself up to change; you're embracing the full potential of your own growth and the endless possibilities that life has to offer. So, let’s venture forth, finding joy in the discovery, strength in the challenge, and wisdom in the experience. Let the mere exposure effect be a guide, not to comfort, but to the rich and rewarding opportunities that lie beyond the familiar.

To learn more about cognitive biases, like the Mere Exposure Effect and Dr. Robbins talks and workshops, please contact Steve at 616.818.6485 or


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