Why We Prefer the Familiar

The mere-exposure effect drives you away from the unfamiliar and toward the familiar.

“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

You reach for what is familiar when uncertain.

It’s a psychological phenomenon where the familiar is preferred over the unknown. This mere-exposure effect is present in all of us as a safety mechanism. The unknown can get us killed, so we often fall back on what is familiar... what is comfortable... what is safe. “Better the devil you know” as the old saying goes.

Bias for the familiar is everywhere if you look close enough.

We suffer the status quo and all manner of abuse instead of changing. Even the U.S. Declaration of Independence references this tendency whereby “mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

We think of ourselves as good at what we practice. Why? Because we are familiar with the technique or movement pattern... even if it is poorly executed.

Old theories are hard to let go of when disproved. Consider this powerful truth from Max Planck: “A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Even ideas are subject to this phenomenon. Mere familiarity with an idea tricks us into thinking there is understanding. But as soon as we put pen to paper to describe the idea in our own words, we are exposed as frauds. As John Henry Newman admonishes, “nothing is more common than for men to think that because they are familiar with words they understand the ideas they stand for.”

You are biased toward what is familiar and this bias is the resistance you feel when blazing a new trail.

Seek out what is uncomfortable... what is unfamiliar. Your mind will recoil at first. Such is the price of progress.

Can you think of other areas in life where the mere-exposure effect warps reality? Think long enough, and the sheer number of occurrences will shock you.

Be ever vigilant for this and other forms of bias. I will eventually catalog them all, but if you must know this instant, behold the Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet!