The old cliché “familiarity breeds contempt” contradicts what we know about human psychology and brain science. The Mere Exposure Effect shows that we develop preferences for things because they are familiar. If our brain recognizes something, it is less threatening. Novelty is interesting because it is threatening.
This effect was most extensively researched by Robert Zajonc. It has been demonstrated in many domains, including words, Chinese characters, paintings, faces, geometric figures, and sounds. Studies have also shown that the more often we see a person, the more likeable and attractive we find that person, but does this apply to the looks of the people we see in the media?
A recent study investigated whether Western media and the promotion of “thin ideals” influences perceptions and attitudes of female beauty. This has been a tricky subject to research, as any good study requires two similar populations, one of which is not exposed.
A team from the University of Durham studied residents of seven villages in a remote region of Nicaragua. At the time of the research, they had very little or no access to magazines and the internet, but some had been exposed to TV through a gradually extending electricity grid. The people were mostly subsistence farmers and fishermen with relatively poor food security. As it has been suggested that such communities tend to find fleshier people more attractive, this is a good test case.
In a first study, researchers compared attitudes of people with regular TV access (Latin American soap operas and Hollywood movies were popular) versus those who didn’t yet have access.
Two factors were associated with a preference for thinner bodies. The first was education level, which might reflect that some had spent time studying in a large town with some previous access to TV. The second factor was current access to a TV, with a difference in ideal BMI of at least 5 points. Those who were regular TV watchers had an ideal around 22, while those who had not been exposed to TV had an ideal around 27-28.
In a second study, the researchers looked at the impact of gaining access to a TV and whether this shifted attitudes. This proved difficult to conduct for many reasons, but a small amount of data suggested that there was a move to preferring thinner bodies.
In a final study, the researchers tried to mimic the immediate impact of TV exposure by showing villages a series of photographs of either thin or plus-sized fashion models. After just 15 minutes of viewing such images, the participants’ perceptions of the ideal female body size moved towards the images they had just seen.
Taken in total, the studies suggest that TV exposure does drive both men and women towards finding thinner female bodies more attractive. As the researchers write, “these data strongly support the proposal that visual culture may be a critical contributory factor in the development of attraction in modern humans”.
They highlight an additional risk that exposure to Western body ideals and a more Western lifestyle (especially a high calorie diet) usually happen together, making a thin figure harder to attain and potentially leading to greater levels of body dissatisfaction.
On the brighter side, the research also suggests a simple remedy. If mere exposure is so influential, then altering the images people see can lead to healthier perceptions too!