Familiarity's Contradictory Effects on Attraction

two people walking holding arms.

We at Marriage Pact place a lot of emphasis on the importance of similarity in both initial attraction and long-term compatibility. However, there’s an equally strong indicator of attraction — familiarity — that plays a role in who we want to be with.

The familiarity principle of attraction is “the idea that objects and people seen repeatedly are subsequently rated more positively than are those seen less frequently.” In other words, we tend to like the things and people that we have seen before, especially multiple times. You may also know it as the mere exposure effect.

There are two simple theories for why familiarity could enhance attraction:

  1. Familiar stimuli are easier to cognitively recognize and process (which makes our brains feel good).

  1. We tend to be wary of strangers, so it’s easier to trust that someone we’re familiar with won’t hurt us.

This might make you think that familiarity is unilaterally a good thing. However, there are some limitations to this principle. Yes, familiarity usually enhances initial attraction, and plays a big role in helping us choose between otherwise two equally appealing partners, for the two reasons mentioned above. However, familiarity can also be a double-edged sword once you’re well into a committed relationship.

Familiarity makes us feel good, but more specifically, it makes us feel calm (recall the “heroin” phase of love!). Hedonic psychology shows us that familiarity suppresses physiological arousal in general, which at the least leads to less sexual arousal over time, but at the most can increase boredom and disgust

Too much of a good thing can be bad. See: eating so much of something delicious that it stops being tasty, or listening to the same song over and over again so much that you can’t bear to hear it anymore. (Or if you’re an econ person, it’s also known as the law of diminishing marginal returns!)

In psychology, this phenomenon is referred to as experiential saturation — when familiarity increases attraction up to a certain point, at which it starts to level off (or decline!) when you’ve had too much. 

What this tells us is that familiarity enhances initial attraction, while undermining long-term attraction. How soon that experiential saturation point arrives in your relationship is dependent on both individuals’ thresholds for boredom, and how they work together. So think about your own boredom saturation point for things like food and music, and how familiarity can either help or hurt your relationships.