The Familiarity Heuristic: Worthwhile Principle or Unhelpful Bias?

familiarity with childhood teddy bear

Have you ever persisted with something that wasn’t in your best interests?

Either a job you disliked, a destructive habit or unfulfilling relationship?

It’s not that we don’t know what to do, rather we just can’t bring ourselves to do it.

Why is that? I mean, if we can diagnose the problem, it should be an easy fix.

And yet these situations frequently persist for years leading to an undercurrent of anger, crawling snake-like, beneath the skin.

The familiar

Humans love what they know. Why? Because what’s known is safer than the mysterious candyland out there, full of evil clowns.

On a biological level, maximising happiness isn’t high on the agenda.

Neurologically, we’re geared first and foremost for survival, everything else secondary.

So even if that unspeakably irritating situation is causing significant distress or unhappiness, at least it’s the safer option.

You’re alive and potentially able to reproduce, so your DNA is joyous, even if you are not.

Breaking free from unenviable situations in the search of something better, at least on a neurological level, is considered a risky move.

There’s even some fancy scientific-sounding terms to support this little theorem about familiarity.

Mere-exposure effect

This is sometimes called the familiarity principle and is based on the fact that people tend to display a preference for that with which they’re most familiar.

From language to people and situations, we tend to gravitate towards what we know.

This can obviously be an issue if we stuck in the old proverbial rut.

Best developed by Robert Zajonc, the principle shows that when organisms are initially exposed to a novel stimulus, they exhibit fear and avoidance.

With each subsequent exposure, this reaction diminishes, until the response becomes one of interest and curiosity, and eventually, affective liking.

Interestingly, Zajonc tested subjects through the use of priming exposure with different levels of conscious awareness.

He discovered that positive feelings are maximised when subjects aren’t consciously aware of their repeated exposure.

Familiarity heuristic

In many ways, this heuristic is synonymous with the mere-exposure effect.

Born on the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman and their discovery of the availability heuristic, the familiarity heuristic provides a cognitive shortcut or rule of thumb to guide our behaviour.

Just as the principle above affects our preference, so this framework allows us to alter our behaviour based on our previous reactions.

The heuristic assumes that if we react in the same way to a similar situation, the results will stay the same.

This is useful because it can save us time and mental resources in new situations, especially when we’re under increased cognitive load.

However, preferencing the familiar, because it’s the easiest, most desirable option, clearly isn’t always in our best interests, even if it is conserving cognitive capacity in the short term.

Indeed, in the financial arena familiarity bias has been identified, meaning that investors often exclude perfectly valid, and potentially favourable investments in favour of that which they know.

The safe option

Still with me after all that research talk? Good.

The main takeaway is that, when you’re considering a transition, your devilish little brain creates imaginary obstacles, attempting to dissuade you from engaging change.

It amplifies the risk of potential decisions and outcomes. That comparatively small decision to leave your job in search of a more fulfilling role soon culminates in a series of thoughts with you filthy and homeless on the street.

Interestingly, there’s no evidence supporting such mind-made illusions.

In contrast, the potential upside of our future projections is frequently diminished. Pursuing a calling with meaning and purpose that could well result in a life of plenty is downplayed.

The result?

Instead of leaping boldly into the unknown, you retreat to the safety of the familiar, even though you know, long-term, joy or satisfaction will remain elusive, ghosts in the night.

There are those that live their whole lives in such quiet desperation, the thorns of discontent becoming ever more painful over time, bitterness surfacing as the years roll by.

Reflecting on a life of acquiesce and overlooked opportunities, there’s only one, inevitable outcome; regret.

Changing world

This needn’t be the case. Back in our loincloth and club days of early evolution, it would have been considered suicide to abandon the safety of the tribe and strike out solo upon the plain.

However, the world has changed and the prehistoric parts of our mental apparatus haven’t kept pace.

Many of us are no longer fighting, Mortal Combat-style, for our daily survival.

Society, via the wonders of modern technology. has remade itself, the potential for social connection ballooning from local to global.

We’re no longer reliant on small tribes for physical and emotional safety and instead, can remodel our lives with comparatively little risk. This could involve seeking out new friendship groups or job opportunities.

The solution

A primary piece of advice is to catch this phenomenon as early as possible. The younger you get to grips with this concept, the better.

Think less missed opportunities, less unfulfillment and quicker transitions when you identify a required change.

But, there’s no time limit on living the examined life.

Developing such self-reflection skills is imperative at any age. The main ability required to break free from the familiar is self-awareness. Frequently, we perform mental gymnastics in defence of our current lifestyle, rationalisations that, on the surface, appear sound.

However, upon further investigation, weaknesses emerge in our arguments and we notice that, although staying with our situation might be logical, on an intuitive level, it doesn’t feel right.

Such skills can be developed through meditation. So go forth and get reflecting.



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