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Summer 2011 | 7

Modeling the Role of Mental Imagery in the Mere Exposure Effect

E very year, companies buy millions of dollars of advertising hoping that consumers’ familiarity with their product will influence their purchases. This phenomenon—called the “mere exposure effect”—sways decisions in every aspect of our lives, from the friends we choose to the votes we cast on Election Day.

Recently completed research provides clues to the psychological and neurological processes that underlie the mere exposure effect. The research— funded by a National Science Foundation grant awarded to Catherine Lemley, department chair and professor of psychology at Elizabethtown College, and Robert Bornstein, a professor at Adelphi University in Long Island, N.Y.—examined the role of mental imagery in shaping human attitudes. Collaborating on the studies were Danielle Alexander ’04, who served as a research consultant, and several Elizabethtown College student research assistants, including Shayna Clancy ’11, Renee Fortinper ’10, Jessica Hudon ’09, Jennifer Peterson ’09, Kayla Shumway ’10, Kelly Wall ’10, Sierra Calaman ’11 and Melissa Rooney ’11.

Since the 1960s, psychological research has provided much evidence of the mere exposure effect. In recent years, Lemley, herself, has co-authored about a dozen conference presentations on the subject with about 30 students. Although the phenomenon is well-known, there is some debate regarding the processes that underlie it, says Lemley. “The process is so subtle that, in most cases, we are unaware that mere exposure played a role in altering our attitudes,” she explains. “For example, we affiliate with people we encounter most frequently. This is why first-year college students’ friends often are determined by housing proximity and why attitudes toward other commuters one might see on the subway, but never talk to, become more positive over time.” In their research, Lemley and her collaborators sought to explain the processes at work in this social phenomenon. “Some researchers support an effect-based model, suggesting

that there is minimal cognitive activity involved and that the effect is formed at an emotional level,” reflects Lemley. “We, however, believe that it involves higher-level cognitive processes.” To evaluate their theory, the team’s project combined behavioral and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies.

The behavioral study, which involved Alexander and the student research assistants, looked at the neuro-anatomy that’s involved. “We conducted behavioral studies that demonstrated that mental imagery is involved in the encoding and retrieval of merely exposed stimuli,” Lemley says. “From these findings, we constructed a comprehensive model for the mere exposure process.”

To further substantiate their results, the team conducted fMRI studies to show evidence of brain activation while participants were engaged in some of the mental imagery tasks used in the behavioral experiments. This portion of the study was conducted in collaboration with a team from Penn State College of Medicine of Hershey, Pa., which included Dr. Paul Eslinger, Dr. Jianli Wang, Melissa Robinson-Long and Mary Hughes.

Lemley expects their work will open the door to new insights into some of today’s most challenging human and social problems. “It is our hope that by delineating the processes that underlie the mere exposure effect, this program of research will set the stage for continued application of mere exposure methods and findings to real-world problems and issues, such as fear acquisition and reduction, attitude formation and change, and stereotype and prejudice reduction,” says Lemley. Findings of this research have been published in the journal Imagination, Personality and Cognition and at two annual meetings of the Association for Psychological Science.

The National Science Foundation-funded research of Department Chair and Professor of Psychology Catherine Lemley (shown above, far R) has involved several Elizabethtown students, including (shown L to R) Shayna Clancy ’11, Jennifer Peterson ’09, Renee Fortinper ’10 and Jessica Hudon ’09, who are shown presenting their findings at the 21st Annual Convention of the Association for Psychological Science. The research generated a comprehensive model for the mere exposure process and thousands of fMRI images (shown below).

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