About 7 years ago I was walking back home when it started raining.
I was living near the top of Potrero Hill in San Francisco at that time.
To say that getting home was a hassle would be a massive understatement. I didn’t have access to Uber, and hailing a cab in the city was (and still is) a near impossibility.
Umbrella-less, I trudged, step by step, through the rain.
To keep my mind off the discomfort, I zoned out. Which is why I was so confused when I started paying attention again.
About halfway up the hill to my house, I noticed that the streets were oddly quiet… and they were filled with… cars. Beautiful old cars.
Everywhere you looked there was one mint-condition 1940s Chrysler or Dodge after another.
Unreal. It was as if I had been transported back in time.
But then I started to get worried. Was I seeing things? Was this some early stage sign of hypothermia? Was the food I ate earlier laced with drugs—some experimental hallucinogen?
I looked around for a clue as to what was going on. Maybe a car show was happening…
But why would they hold it in this kind of junky part of San Francisco, during one of the worst weather months of the year? And why were all these old-skool cars parallel parked on the street and in people’s driveways?
Nothing made sense, and the streets were eerily quiet… not a soul could be seen (or heard).
If this was hypothermia, I better get back home quickly.
I continued my climb at double-speed.
As I passed this junky old house (that I always thought might be abandoned) near the top of the hill, I looked over to see a quite cute woman standing on the porch with a cigarette. She was wearing what looked like a robe or a nightie, and we made some prolonged eye contact as I walked by.
She looked so familiar…
“Hey, how’s it goin’?” I said and smiled as I passed.
She smiled a little and gave me a slight head nod, but said nothing.
After a couple of seconds, a muscular, shirtless guy walked out from behind her and stood on the porch.
He stared at me. Silently.
“Bizarre”, I thought.
But that face… I couldn’t place it. I knew her from somewhere. Did I go to middle school with her? Maybe it was a girl I saw at a local coffee shop all the time… Or, maybe she was a friend of a friend from when I was growing up in Oakland or Danville. Hmmmmm.
I racked my brain, but I couldn’t figure out where I knew her from.
Then, an hour later, it hit me.
Oh… dayum. It was Kirsten Dunst (of Batman fame).
I went on IMDB and looked up whether she had any movies coming out and, sure enough, she was currently in the process of filming “On The Road”—which features SF.
The funniest thing about that experience, though, is how familiar she felt. My mind’s initial reaction was that I had run into a long lost friend, or an acquaintance from childhood.
But I’ve never talked to, or hung out, with her. I have no real relationship with her. My mind, by seeing images of her, and watching her on screen over the years, has been tricked into seeing her as a friendly member of my tribe.
This seems to be a core feature of our perceptions: we like things that we’ve seen before.
In nerd-speak, this is called the “Mere-exposure Effect”.
Show an English speaker a random Chinese character. Then expose him to one Chinese character at a time (including the one he already saw) and have him rate how much he likes each character he sees. Guess which character he’s going to prefer? The ones he’s seen before.
We’ve all experienced the same thing with music, too. Almost any song can sound good after you’ve heard it a couple dozen times on the radio.
And this also happens with people. All of us have had the experience of getting forced to spend a lot of time with someone we didn’t necessarily like. Maybe they were put in the same row as us in elementary school. Maybe they were a new coworker put on our team. But, against all odds, a friendship blossomed.
The more familiar we become with the things around us, the more we like them.
I think that’s where celebrities get most of their power. All our brains think that we’re seeing one of our besties from childhood. The familiarity, and the bond it brings, is deep.
Note re: familiarity and people: I think that much of the reason we tend to prefer familiar people is because we know they’re *safe*. In our ancestral environment, strangers were not always likely to be friendly and cuddly creatures. Growing up in a small tribe, it’s unlikely that you’d run into many novel faces. If you did, they were probably from some other tribe, and they could therefore be quite dangerous. Thus, a good heuristic for safety is “is this face familiar?”. If yes, breathe a sigh of relief. If no… RUN!!!