How Simple Familiarity Influences Our Decisions ‹ Literary Hub


In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry quips, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Wilde was onto something. All publicity boosts familiarity, and if we forget that the familiarity we feel originated in negative information, we tend to treat it as a positive signal—hence the adage that all publicity is good publicity.

Have you heard of Sebastian Weisdorf, Valerie Marsh, and Adrian Marr? A 1989 study made them famous overnight and by doing so provided some evidence for Wilde’s conjecture. The cognitive psychologists Larry Jacoby, Colleen Kelley, Judith Brown, and Jennifer Jasechko asked college students to read a list of nonfamous but distinctive names, like Sebastian Weisdorf. Later, they created a longer list of names that included some of the made-up names alongside the names of actual famous people, like Roger Bannister, Minnie Pearl, and Christopher Wren.

The same students were asked to judge whether each name belonged to a famous person. When they made their judgments right after reading the original list, they knew that Weisdorf wasn’t famous. But when there was a twenty-four-hour delay between reading the list and making the fame judgment, they were a bit more likely to think Weisdorf was famous.

His name was familiar, but because the students were no longer sure why, they were more likely to interpret their familiarity with it as a sign that he was famous. In general, we are more likely to be familiar with the names of well-known people than with obscure ones, so it’s sensible to infer that a familiar name of someone we don’t know personally belongs to someone famous.

In fact, merely increasing the familiarity of a name can increase preferences for it. The political scientists Cindy Kam and Elizabeth Zechmeister compared voters’ relative preferences for two fictitious candidates, one named Mike Williams and one named Ben Griffin. Williams is a more common last name, and it was the answer option listed first under the question “For which candidate would you vote?” Two-thirds of the participants chose Williams when given no additional information, a result consistent with research showing that familiar names and names appearing first on a ballot have an advantage.

However, Kam and Zechmeister were able to counter these advantages by repeatedly flashing Griffin’s name on a screen too briefly for viewers to be confident they had seen it. Under these conditions, voter preference for Williams dropped by 13 percent so that instead of winning by a two-to-one margin, he prevailed in a squeaker. Repeatedly exposing people to Griffin’s name increased the number of people saying they’d vote for him.

A persuasive, credible message from a questionable source has little influence at first—people discount it because of the questionable source.

Whereas unknown candidates in down-ballot races might benefit more from increased familiarity, in real elections, we should not expect shifts of 13 percent in voting preferences from something as subtle as briefly flashing a name. Any effect of something that subtle would likely be swamped by advertising, phone banking, public events, media coverage, unexpected news, and all the other influences on real-life voting, especially in a high-profile race. But this study provides a demonstration of how familiarity might contribute to our decisions in ways we don’t fully realize.

Research like this also helps explain why yard signs and banners proliferate before American elections. They mostly signal preferences and affiliation, and they might help make an unpopular candidate seem more mainstream. But they can also boost support for a candidate via increasing familiarity. Field experiments in which yard signs are placed at random have shown that they do have a small causal influence, shifting vote share by about 1.7 percentage points on average. (This relatively small influence of a pervasive form of advertisement shows why we should be especially careful not to overstate the real-world effects of more subtle priming effects like the name familiarity effect.)

The same principle applies in other areas of our lives. A persuasive, credible message from a questionable source has little influence at first—people discount it because of the questionable source. But the message can become more persuasive over time because of its familiarity. Even more potent are deceptive messages delivered by a trusted source or presented in a trusted format.

Marketers regularly rely on familiarity to instill a sense of recognition and trust. That might be why companies like Ralph Lauren and IKEA apply proper names to their products (such as the “Hampton” shirt or the “Billy” bookcase) and why new companies name themselves to evoke familiar icons (like the self-driving truck firm Nikola using Nikola Tesla’s first name, thereby linking itself to both an iconic inventor and the most famous company in its industry).

In New York City, there were once dozens of “Ray’s Famous Original Pizza” restaurants, none of them related to one another. Companies also adopt familiar color schemes, typefaces, and other elements of “trade dress” for their products to catch the attention of consumers looking for what they already know. In central Pennsylvania, where Chris lives, the local and regional brands of ridged potato chips come in bags that look quite a bit like packages of Ruffles, the leading national brand they compete with.

Familiarity and similarity usually are such reliable cues that they greatly influence our decisions. That’s why companies invest heavily in advertising designed solely to raise public awareness of their brands. In the 1980s, the new Japanese automobile brand Infiniti famously ran a series of TV commercials in which not a single car was shown, purely to increase the familiarity of its name in advance of introducing actual products.

Likewise, 84 Lumber, a relatively obscure building supply firm, spent over $10 million on a 2017 Super Bowl commercial that did not feature any of its products or services. Instead, it attempted to draw attention to its brand by telling a positive story about immigration. Shortly after that, Chris started noticing their locations when he passed them, and he even considered stopping to check one out.


Excerpted from NOBODY’S FOOL: Why We Get Taken In and What We Can Do about It by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris. Copyright © 2023. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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