The Effect Effect

Daniel Kahneman and the language of popular psychology.

Daniel Engber

In 1969, the psychologist Robert Zajonc published an article about a curious study. He’d posted a silly-sounding word—either kardirga, saricik, biwonjni, nansoma, or iktitaf—on the front page of some student newspapers in Michigan every day for several weeks. Then he sent questionnaires to the papers’ readers, asking them to guess whether each word referred to "something ‘good’ " or "something ‘bad.’ " Their answers were consistent, if a little strange: Nonsense words that showed up in print many times were judged to be more positive than those that appeared just once or twice. The fact of their repetition, said Zajonc, gave the words an aura of warmth and trustworthiness. He called this the mere exposure effect.

Maybe you’ve heard about this study before. Maybe you know a bit about Zajonc and his work. That’s good. If you’ve already seen the phrase mere exposure effect in print, then you’ll be more likely to believe that it’s true. That’s the whole point.

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