Jon Anderson: What We Think is Our Unique Style is Really Just Repetition

Do you like this or have you just seen a lot of it?

Style is a loose term defining the trappings we show the outside world from shoes to shower curtains. It is a set of markers that enable others to make decisions about us without exchanging words. These markers are both blatant and nuanced.  The easiest to pick off are the signs of wealth or a lack of it (money is the great excluder). Mark Cuban rankles many in Preston Hollow simply by being the top dog in a sea of less-top dogs.

But back on earth, most of us believe our personal style is just that, personal. That we’ve somehow had some input into the architecture of our persona. Nope.  Not really.

Style, indeed much of our worldview, can largely be explained by a handful of psychological concepts including mere-exposure, propinquity, and illusory truth. Taken together they begin to explain the formation of tribal mentalities and how that equates to style.


Researchers have figured out that familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, it breeds money. We like white-white kitchens because we’ve been told they’re fashionable through their repetition in media. Last weekend, I briefly watched a show (paid ad) called Hot on Homes that shows tract housing developments in the DFW hinterlands. Regardless of the subdivision, homes’ exterior and interior treatments were identical. Similarly-shaped exteriors of brick, sometimes stucco, with stone accents … the aforementioned kitchens. Yet each claiming to be “unique.” Of course they also tout “no wasted space” before highlighting a “bonus room” (the definition of leftover, wasted space) so go figure.

Called the “mere-exposure” effect, it’s a psychological concept that states people are more apt to look upon something favorably when they’ve seen it before, even if it’s bad. Countless experiments have proven this.  Show people a variety of unknown, but good, art. Mix in more unknown art of a similar quality.  People will more favorably rate the art they’d been exposed to before. Call it the Mona Lisa Effect.

Thought of another way, it’s why a cracked tile is viewed more negatively in someone else’s house.  The repetitive exposure in your own home dulls your response, making the cracked tile almost invisible. But see it in new surroundings, and it’s immediately, negatively noticeable.   It’s why your Realtor tells you to fix something when selling and you resist, thinking, “it’s not that bad.”

Mere-exposure is proven most effective when it’s subtle.  Research says that traditional ads work best to bring out changes or “new” something. Next time you’re watching TV, look at the ads. How many say “buy this” versus “buy this new thing”?

Subtlety is achieved through product placements. In the old days, a set designer just assembled sets and props based on the mood they were trying to achieve. Today, nearly everything you see on screen paid to be there. You don’t perceive it as an ad, but it is. Even innocuous shows like PBS’ The Daytripper that explores Texas towns to encourage a day trip. The current season is partly sponsored by Chevrolet and so several times per episode they are required/paid to show the SUV in what’s known as a glamor shot. You know what I mean, that three-quarter offset that shows the front and one side of the vehicle. Paid subtlety.

In summary, mere-exposure says that we tend to show favorable bias towards things we’ve been exposed to before.


Propinquity is a funny sounding word that basically means that physical and ideological proximity equates to “birds of a feather.”  In physical terms, office workers on the same floor will form tighter bonds than those between floors even when working in the same department.  People near the stairs or elevators will know more people due to their opportunity to be physically exposed to more people.

I don’t think I need to belabor the concept of ideological proximity in the current political climate, except to say that propinquity not only keeps the like-minded together, it keeps difference out.  It’s both badge and shield.

As this applies to style, that should be obvious.  Your friend groups all eat at the same places, shop at the same stores, and share the same ideas. Is it any wonder that home décor is similar within some fairly narrow bands.  Sure, one group member can be modern while others are traditional, but within those seemingly different styles, there will be similarity in any number of ways. In car terms, one will have a roadster while the other an SUV … but they’re both Mercedes and they’re both black.

Propinquity helps in the formation of common thoughts and actions needed to bind groups together.

Illusory Truth Effect

This is the most simple of these concepts and the most dangerous.  Essentially, the more you hear or experience something, the more you believe it to be true. In a sense, this is literal brainwashing and a form of teaching by rote. We know not to drink spoiled milk … but also how many of us have “memories” of things we did as children that we couldn’t possibly remember?  But because we’ve heard the story over-and-over, it’s gone from story to memory. Memory is incredibly fluid, incredibly hackable.

We all evaluate new information through the lens of our knowledge. If it reinforces, new information is easily accepted. If the information tests that knowledge, it is more often discarded or challenged. In a nutshell, this is why changing minds is difficult. We do not often admit our core knowledge is wrong.

In home décor, HGTV is the poster child of illusory truth, repetitively showing us the same designs over and over and over in a way that imbues them with the “truth” of their stylishness. Twenty years ago, when wood was king, a white kitchen was “an operating room.” Chrome became nickel and now brass is back from the stylistic oblivion.  Why is brass back? Because we’ve been repetitively told it’s back.

The Devil Wears Prada (Source: Fandango)

Cerulean Sweaters

In the 2006 movie, The Devil Wears Prada there is a scene about how the color cerulean had been picked for Andrea’s sweater by the design intelligentsia in that very room. It was amusing that the wearer thought there had been a choice.

Taken together, the concepts above explain how the popularity of the new color was achieved. Andrea became aware of the color via flashes in magazines and sightings worn by aspirational cliques. These exposures, like art, predisposed Andrea to liking the color when she saw it in the future. As the color began to populate, perhaps among friends and colleagues, this increased exposure guided Andrea into “deciding” to buy the familiar sweater in the uncommon color.

That’s the spoonful of sugar, wrapping the unfamiliar within the familiar.  It’s the reason fashion-forward is really a time machine.  I hear the 1980s are back (as always) with a twist …the unfamiliar “twist” wrapped within the familiar.

Chip and Joanna helped bring back country chic. We lapped it up because it was really a riff on 1980s shabby chic, so we’d been exposed to it before. If the timeline holds, after the 1980s, the Mediterranean craze began. You remember — white chiffon and terra cotta pots.

And it’s becoming faster due to social media.  It used to be that “trends” began on the coasts took sometimes a decade to percolate into Middle America.  That’s no longer the case. Social media has sped-up and democratized trends (which are dictated by who you follow and what’s “liked”). Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook amplify the repetition that’s then made stronger because it’s not an “ad” — it’s liked by “friends.”

I sense you’re fighting me on this, believing you can’t be influenced as easily as this. All I can suggest is for you to start taking stock of your tastes and where they come from.  An easy test for manipulation is to watch a TV commercial.  Count the number of scene cuts (quick cuts increase focus like a cat with a ball) and notice anything placed at an angle (angles increase visual attention). Why did advertisers fight so hard to not have DVRs completely skip commercials (as they can and do in other countries)? Because the product flashes are enough to influence. Our attention is drawn to the speeding images as we pay even more attention, intent to stop precisely at the commercial’s end). It’s rare to not see a logo even at top speed.

Finally, taste is becoming more bland, more safe.  With so much money riding on success, chance isn’t being left to change.  From science proving pop music has lost its edge to home décor beholden to “neutrals” and movies with 100 sequels, consumers are being manipulated to buy more things that require the least work and least risk to produce.

Happy Friday!


Remember:  High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement.  If you’re interested in hosting a Staff Meeting event, I’m your guy. In 2016 and 2017, the National Association of Real Estate Editors has recognized my writing with two Bronze (2016, 2017) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards.  Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make?  Shoot me an email

10 Comment

  • I don’t know. If repetition and class signifiers are all it takes, then why don’t I like ranch-style homes?

    And I always thought that conversation in “The Devil Wears Prada” generalizes into ‘business people spend lots of time thinking about the details of their business that most people could care less about” but also overstated its power quite a bit. I mean, she could have been wearing a white sweater, blue, black, or whatever other color that was popular and made the same speech but when 2/3 of the rainbow is covered are you really driving individual choice or just throwing stuff at the wall?

    I fully believe in the power of marketing, but within bounds people still are making choices. Isn’t calling the room a “bonus room” the very illustration of this – if it’s an office call it an office. But it’s not always, is it? We can get Mitch Hedburg-esque about this “I have 4 bedrooms – one of them has an oven in it” but most people don’t need or want that much control – cf: Devo Freedom of Choice.

  • First, I am glad brass is back because brass is great everywhere except kitchens and bathrooms, which call for chrome (or stainless, nickel, etc.)

    I have been around real estate awhile and know realtors tell you to get rid of personal touches so a buyer can imagine themselves in the home. I wondered if the homes I see were so bleh because people moved so much and were worried about resale, but they actually move less now. It could be just that housing costs are high and everyone keeps value and resale on the mind.

    But then there’s this. Everyone hates McMansions and loves San Francisco Victorians, so why don’t we build them?

    • “Everyone hates McMansions and loves San Francisco Victorians, so why don’t we build them?”

      I think it’s pretty clear that a large fraction of the population loves McMansions. That’s why we have so many of them.

      As for why not new Victorian-style homes, I imagine a large part is while people appreciate the ornate detailing, they don’t actually value it enough to pay the higher costs that go into providing that. We actually did get a row of new “Victorians” in my neighborhood (, but notice even there much has been simplified/streamlined.

  • Oh, and at least as far as furnishings go, if you go vintage and patrol the art world, you will definitely develop a nonrepetitious unique style.

  • mm

    I didn’t say the effect was 100%, but you explain man buns.
    Mere-exposure = Librarians.
    Propinquity = Buns flock together.
    Illusory truth = everyone who has lied and said it looked good (and every man bun compliment is a lie).

  • 1. People are like sheep and lemmings
    2. Acceptance by peers
    3. White painted kitchens are the cheapest material for builders

  • Ergo, Collin County.

    In my rearview mirror a few years ago for a refreshing re-entry into the world of architectural and community diversity. Real vs faux.

    Good read about why the blah-ness of some communities can be found in the book “Next Stop: Reloville.” Texas, especially North Texas, has several communities listed as examples.

  • The_Overdog: Great Mitch Hedberg reference. I remember in that bit, he also said, “this bedroom has people sitting around watching TV. This bedroom is a walkway to other bedrooms, a.k.a. hallway…”. Back to the original post, though, isn’t it difficult to come out with something that’s never been seen before? Architecture, decor, fashion, it all comes back around.

    • mm

      There is a difference between “seen” and “popular”. Even into antiquity, homes were a riot of color and now they’re not. Neutrals with “pops of color” is now the trend (might as well say “pops of personality”…but not too much, we’re best in small doses).
      Appliance makers have been desperately trying to get consumers off of stainless steel for several years in hopes of driving fashion upgrade business (versus “dead fridge” business). It’s not worked, in part, because of what we’re surrounded by in media.
      Now I’m lucky, I’ve always liked stainless. My first fridge was stainless about 25-ish years ago, before the trend hit full steam. (For reference, GE introduced its first stainless appliances 30 years ago in 1987).
      All I’m trying to say is that our tastes (mine included) are being manipulated by what we’re exposed to the most (and it’s not just traditional ads). The more we’re aware of the echo chamber, the less power it has to manipulate us…in every aspect of our lives.