Radio's Top 40 playlist emerged in the 1940s as radio station growth expanded and the practice of payola, paying radio stations to increase song plays, came into practice. Since outlawed, payola tapped into what psychologists call the mere exposure theory. In layperson's terms: our preference for something increases the more we are exposed to it. Record labels knew to make a hit single all they needed to do was boost air play, bumping out the competition and increasing our familiarity with their promoted song.
Our brains take comfort in stimulus that it has seen before. Studies have shown that portions of the brain associated with emotion and rewards are more active when hearing familiar songs than unfamiliar ones.
"A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact." ― Daniel Kahnman
This principle works in other domains too: marketing, news, social interactions ... We have to be aware of this influence to ensure that our choices are based on material facts and not due to frequency alone.
There are parallel questions to ask ourselves:
- Are we busy or are we productive?
- Are we consistent or do we have conviction?
- Is that a fact or is it a reason?
- Inspired by Martin Zwilling, are you talking or are you communicating?
- And one from the great coach John Wooden, “Never mistake activity for achievement.”
Our integrity matters most. This means we challenge when we get comfortable, we keep asking why, we probe into the rationale behind our choices, and we keep an open mind when others remind us that our brain may fall victim to familiar stimulus too.
Learn more about the music industry, why we listen to our favorite songs on repeat, and how chewing gum can prevent earworms.
See the whole series by using the Paradox Pairs Index