Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Like bees to Honey - The impact of mere exposure

Allow me to introduce you to X Factor’s phenomenon of 2016; Miss Honey G.

I know what you’re thinking; “Who is this woman? How on earth did she make it to the live shows? Is that what singing counts as nowadays?” Well you’re certainly not the only one with those thoughts. I even had them myself, until now.

Let’s take a look at Honey G’s first audition:

So, what happened in order for this ordinary, seemingly talentless woman to go from an average singer to a rapping sensation in the space of a few weeks? Psychology has a few plausible suggestions as to why this ‘Ice, Ice Baby’ has warmed up our hearts.

According to Zajonc’s (1968) mere exposure theory, the more familiar we become with a certain stimulus, the more we perceive ourselves to like it. This was demonstrated in Zajonc’s study of Chinese characters, whereby participants were shown neutral ideographs and then later asked to judge which ones they believed had good connotations. It was found that characters presented at a higher frequency were perceived as having more positive meanings in comparison to those that were shown less often (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Stimuli used in Zajonc's (1968) experiment, and ratings of
'goodness' according to exposure frequency (high vs. low).

This ‘mere exposure’ effect can also be applied to interpersonal attraction, whereby frequent encounters with the same person can lead to judging that individual as being more likeable, even when that person is not known. This has been researched by Goetzinger (1968; as cited in Zajonc, 1968) who conducted an experiment in which a student attended several classes wearing just a black bag, such that his entire body, except for his feet, were concealed. The black bag student was originally greeted with hostility, but over time, his peers’ attitudes changed from antagonism to curiosity, and friendships between the black bag student and his classmates started developing. Thus, evidence from both Zajonc and Goetzinger can help to explain why Honey G began to gain popularity through increased exposure; the more we see of her on TV, the more her personality grows on us.

This links nicely to the ‘agenda setting theory’ (McCombs & Shaw, 1972), which suggests that the media governs what we pay attention to, which in turn influences our attitude. Thus, the more the media focuses on a particular story, the more important we believe this story to be. Since the X Factor aired this year, there has been a lot of media coverage on Honey G, with Google news displaying over 696,000 results, and videos of her performances on YouTube reaching over 500,000 hits each so far. From newspaper headlines of “Honey G, the biggest joke in X Factor History…” (The Telegraph, 2016) to “Things always happen in threes: First Brexit, then Trump’s triumph - so will Honey G now win the X Factor?” (Metro, 2016) it appears that this controversial chick has certainly made her mark on reality TV, and indeed is at the forefront of our minds.

A final explanation for the rise of Honey G may be due to the concept of social norms. Simon Cowell originally vocalised his dislike for the rapper, stating during her audition that “I was so uncomfortable… You shouldn’t be doing that,” to eventually self-confessing his guilty pleasure for watching the singer perform and even giving her standing ovations. Research has shown that we are more likely to agree with a certain viewpoint if the source of the message is someone who we consider to be an expert in that field (Kelman & Hovland, 1953).  If one of the most eminent celebrity judges on British TV has had a change in attitude towards Honey G, then surely the rest of us must be missing some hidden star quality. After all, if these expert panel of judges adore her, then why shouldn’t we? Psychological research has highlighted the notion of social norms, which suggests that if everyone else thinks or behaves a certain way, then it must be okay, making it easier for us to feel the same. This group influence can be seen in conformity studies such as that of the Stanford Prison Experiment (Zimbardo, 1973) whereby participants were assigned the role of prisoner or guard. Those who were guards committed violence against those given the status of prisoners in order to maintain their position in the dominant group, and feel a sense of cohesion and belonging. Becoming so immersed in the group norms consequently led to participants losing their sense of identity and accountability, a process Zimbardo refers to as ‘deindividuation’.

So, to conclude, it may well be that we are mindlessly going along with these social norms in order to be part of the majority, who, in the words of Honey G, are “down with it”, or that we have been unwillingly subject to the influence of mere exposure. Either way, whether you love her or hate her, Honey G has certainly got us all buzzing.

Catherine Turvey


Kelman, H. C., & Hovland, C.I. (1953). “Reinstatement” of the communicator in delayed measurement of opinion change. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 48, 327-335. 

McCombs, M. (2005). A look at agenda-setting: Past, present, and future. Journalism Studies, 6, 543-557.

Mohan, I. (2016, November 1). Honey G is the biggest joke in X Factor history - no wonder she makes Simon Cowell uncomfortable. The Telegraph. Retrieved from:

Westbrook, C. (2016, November 9). Things always happen in threes: First Brexit, then Trump’s Triumph - so will Honey G now win the X Factor? Metro. Retrieved from:

Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 1-27.

Zimbardo, P. (2007). The Lucifer Effect: How good people turn evil. New York: The Random House Group. 

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