Become More Attractive to Others through Mere-Exposure

Is the key to love spending time looking at someone?

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Do you ever feel like you get ignored by the object of your affection or are constantly getting passed over for more conventionally attractive people? Professor Vishton explains how to make yourself more attractive and even lovable via something called mere-exposure. 

young couple in love
Cognitive scientists have determined that a psychological effect called “mere-exposure” greatly increases your preferences for things based on how much time you spend being around them. (Image: Shutterstock/Dean Drobot)

How Mere-Exposure Works

Cognitive neuroscientists, like all people, are very interested in love. A lot has been discovered about love circuits in the brain and, in the process, a better understanding of just what love means to humans. One mechanism behind love is an effect known as mere-exposure.

Want to love something? Look at it, listen to it, and generally experience that thing, or that person, a lot. 

Want someone to love you? According to Professor Vishton, you should try to maximize the amount of time that they spend with you. Cognitive scientists have known for a while that your preferences for things are greatly influenced by how much you’re exposed to them.

Changing Impressions of a Photo

Consider a simple example. Imagine a photo of someone’s face. A straightforward frontal view works fine. If you digitally squash or stretch the features on that face, the face will look a bit unattractive.

Because of the way the features on this face have been stretched, it has a negative, scowling expression. If you were to see someone with this face walking down the street, the notion of love would most likely not come to mind.

When you see someone with a beautiful face, there’s a feeling of pleasure that many people report. It just feels good to look at someone who’s handsome or beautiful. Most people, when seeing that distorted face would report that it looks—aversive. It generates a mildly unpleasant sensation.

Brain imaging studies have shown that particular brain systems are activated when we look at attractive versus unattractive faces. Not surprisingly, systems associated with pleasure— subcortical circuits near the nucleus accumbens—show greater activity when we perceive a face as attractive. For very unattractive faces, increases appear in the amygdala—a region associated with negative emotions or even that fight or flight type of response.

As you continue to stare at a distorted face, however, a strange thing starts to happen. It gradually seems to become less distorted. That feeling of aversion dissipates. Over time, the face starts to look more normal.

Attraction over Time

In fact, if you get used to a distorted face for long enough, when you then look at a version of this face that is not distorted, that version now looks a little strange. For example, if the distorted face has the features squashed toward the center of the face, then in the normal face, an opposite after-effect is produced where the features seem a little stretched away from the center.

The most powerful version of this effect requires staring at the distorted face for a full five minutes or so, but with even a minute of viewing, the general effect is already somewhat apparent. If you looked at the face for days—for months or years—the adaptation would have a semi-permanent effect on how you judge the appearance of faces.

Now, people don’t usually just stare at photographs of faces. Usually those faces talk, smile, and do social things that promote a relationship. 

However, this effect demonstrates that merely looking at a face over time makes it seem more and more attractive. Tomorrow’s article will delve into a pivotal study on the mere-exposure effect.

Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
About Kate Findley 450 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.