We have a familiarity zone. Most of us tend to make decisions based on things we are familiar with.
Studies have shown the mere exposure effect (also referred to as the familiarity principle) inspires our decisions. We become subconsciously attached to things we encounter consistently over time. This impacts our fondness for people, places, customs, materials, and operating methods.
It is a helpful psychological mechanism that helps us sustain our energy and focus our attention on other things.
Getting used to new things takes effort. It can be exhausting. So unless we have a terrible experience, we are likely to buy from companies we’ve used in the past, eat foods we know we like, and spend time with people we know.
This is why companies spend so much money on advertising and marketing. And why, for example (until recently), insurance companies openly charged existing customers more than new ones. The numbers indicate that once someone becomes a customer, they are unlikely to leave, even if they can get a slightly better deal elsewhere. Along with the faff of switching, familiarity might be a factor.
But what if familiarity ISN’T serving us?
It’s not the case that we only desire things we already know. Some studies suggest when invited to share our preferences, we sometimes see less familiar options as more desirable. For example, we might prefer another job or a different place to live more than what we have. But when acting on that preference, we resort to what we know.
This might explain why sometimes the things we want and the things we do, don’t quite match up.
We might even return to companies that have treated us poorly in the past. Or stay in bad relationships, perhaps because we know what to expect or because we’ve lost our ability to imagine better options. The prospect of figuring out what and how to change may feel overwhelming, so we stick to what we know. We might constantly reassure ourselves by saying we will make the change when the right time comes.
Familiarity Breeds Self-Contempt
It can be frustrating and even cause some inner resentment when we don’t act by our preferences. We slip into ruts that are difficult to escape, even though we want to get out.
These patterns of familiarity can cause a sense of stagnation and boredom.
What can we do about it?
Destroy everything familiar and embark on a life of novelty? It’s an option, but it may also be a road to self-destruction and burnout.
Gently Expand The Familiarity Zone
It’s easy to paint the familiarity principle as an enemy. Something to battle, fight and overcome. As if it is something that holds us back from living our dreams.
But this attitude might be overwhelming because it tends to encourage us toward big-picture thinking. Where we imagine that change requires a substantial dramatic swing that we don’t feel ready for.
Some articles suggest the solution to familiarity frustration is stark exposure to novelty. In other words, to replace familiarity with immersion in the unknown. While this can appear effective (to the outside world) in the short run, we may only end up replacing one problem with another. It also risks overwhelm and burnout.
So what if we can work WITH the familiarity principle instead?
Familiarity is something we can learn to play with and enjoy. It is a canvas for creativity and a pathway to expansion. We can broaden the scope of familiarity. The familiarity zone grows gently, gradually, and over time.
If we think of familiarity as something that can expand, we can consider changing the conditions in and around our lives to make more space for our preferences to take root and grow gently. From here, we will start to make decisions, drawing from an ever-deepening pool of valuable options.
So how do we expand our familiarity zone?
Own The Preference
Identify one thing you want to change but can’t seem to act on. If you could magically shift this part of your life, would you prefer to be true instead?
Set Your Timeline
When do you want this to change? Realistically, if you start acting soon, when CAN it change?
The Present Zone of Familiarity
How is your current familiarity zone limiting your ability to move in the desirable direction? What factors are influencing your current scope of familiarity? (e.g. routines, other people, habit cues, other actions etc.)
Expanding Your Familiarity Zone
If there was one thing you could add to your zone of familiarity this week that would contribute to your preference, what would it be?
Take a Ridiculously Small Action
When will you try that thing out?
Celebrate The Success
The outcome isn’t important. What matters is that you acted. So how will you celebrate that success?
If the outcome seemed to work, when will you do it again? If it didn’t work, what could you experiment with next? When will you do it?
Keep Gently Expanding
Small steps. No pressure. Keep dripping new little experiments into your everyday life. See what feels good and acknowledge what doesn’t. Your zone of familiarity is growing through the mere exposure effect. Your pool of options is increasing.
Can you think of something you brought into your familiarity zone? Perhaps it was a taste you acquired, a form of exercise you started, or a habit you built.