The ‘mere exposure effect’ in organizational change

We prefer what is familiar. When confronted with something new or unfamiliar, we prefer to rely on what we already know. This is the mere exposure effect in action (Robert Zajonc 1968). It is a psychological phenomenon that is very common and of course not unimportant in organizational change.


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The ‘mere exposure effect’ in organizational change

Choosing the familiar is a safety mechanism that ensures that uncertainty is reduced. A second reason we choose the familiar is that it is easier to understand than the unknown because we have had time to understand it for a long time. It is within our comfort zone. In organizations, on the other hand, it can lead to inertia. To make progress, we will need to seek out the uncomfortable and help people step out of that comfort zone.

The mere exposure effect also provides an immediate solution: the more we are exposed to a novelty, the more we will come to appreciate it. We will therefore be more inclined to embrace new ideas if we are regularly exposed to them. This can be done on a conscious level, but several studies show that the effect is even stronger on a subconscious level. This principle is therefore often used in advertising by showing a brand sometimes for a fraction of a second and very frequently. Product placement is another technique that uses the exposure effect.

mere exposure effect

In organizational change, you can also use this principle to your advantage to increase the adoption of your change. You already have the disadvantage that your project or change is probably something new for the target group and therefore, if you do nothing, the majority will disregard the idea and continue with the familiar. Not because they want to be difficult, or because your idea is really not good (although that can also be a cause :)), but because the exposure effect kicks in.

“When everything looks unusual around you, your eyes and your mind mostly need anything usual! Unfamiliar disturbs us; familiar comforts us! But for the wise man, unusual is more precious than the usual because it offers us a new way, a new vision, a new idea, a new world!”― Mehmet Murat ildan


Some possible solutions to increase familiarity for change are:

  1. Repeat your message frequently: we have long known that the power of a message is in its repetition. So repetition not only helps a message to be remembered better, but also to get used to the idea in the message.
  2. Hook into something desirable: link your idea or change to something people already like or find valuable. A hip pop-up coffee shop that is present for a week at the launch of a new project, where explanations are given over a cup of coffee, is something that is done more often for product launches, but not yet enough for organizational change. If you can tap into personal goals and meaning, do that.
  3. Use landmarks and repeat them: make sure you have a logo for your project or solution, this helps recognition and familiarity with an idea. Having a clear unique selling proposition (that you repeat regularly) and a visionary project leader can also help.
  4. Use proven themes: look around your organization and see what already works as a theme or approach in organizational change. Repeat the pattern. People will not recognize that pattern immediately, but it will already feel more familiar. Something as simple as a fixed place where novelties are announced or a digital banner can give the necessary trigger that there is something new, but at the same time it also gives familiarity. So think twice before abandoning a tried and tested approach to avoid boredom.
  5. Use the CEO and other influential people: let them help spread the message and name the project or change. Not just once, but with follow-up. Another psychological effect is at play here: the authority bias, the tendency to believe an authority figure. With note that it is always best to verify first whether there is trust in the CEO or another person.
  6. Apply ‘project placement’: look for ways to show your solution to your target audience in a preferably non-intrusive way. An attractive and clearly recognizable logo that you can use both in physical places and digitally in places where employees are regularly virtual helps. Giving short updates from the start of the project and showing what is happening behind the scenes is also a great way to do this.
  7. Let old solutions disappear: nothing is more detrimental to a new idea than the old solution that can still be used. Make sure that access to the old solution disappears or is made very difficult. And make access to the new solution super simple.


But also pay attention.

If you hear a song a number of times, you often start to like it more. But if you hear it too many times, you get tired of it and start avoiding it. So avoid overkill and try to subtly incorporate repetition. Research shows that the mere exposure effect reaches its maximum strength between 10-20 exposures. After that, the effect diminishes again.

Furthermore, it appears that this effect is less effective with children, because they prefer to discover new things rather than repeat the familiar. This in turn contains a lesson for adults and organizations: how can we keep the child in us alive and be curious about new ideas and experiences (again)? Stimulating the curiosity quotient of your employees could well be the key to change readiness.


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