Getting People Used to New Ideas: The Nobel Center Case

One odd little detail of the 2018 Swedish election campaign is how some parties chose to focus their social media message on attacking the proposed new Nobel Center. Designed by David Chipperfield Architects, this new building is supposed to be built on Blasieholmen in central Stockholm, replacing an old customs house presently on the site.

Some people love it; others clearly do not and there is an organised campaign to oppose the new building. What is interesting about this campaign is how commonplace it is. When the iconic Tower Bridge in London was first proposed it was widely ridiculed, so was the Tour Eiffel in Paris. Now nobody would ever consider removing either of them.

Some buildings are, in fact, genuinely repellent. A glance at the winners of the Carbuncle Cup show clearly that some designs not only have no merit, they seem to suck the merit out of their surroundings, too. But many others are not precisely bad but unfamiliar. Why is it that a Tower Bridge or Tour Eiffel is hideous when it is first proposed but delightful after a few years? The answer lies in psychology.

Robert Zajonc at the University of Michigan conducted some interesting experiments in the 1960s which were described in the paper "Attitudinal Effects of Mere Exposure" in June 1968. Among other things, he discovered that people tend to like familiar things. In other words, the first time you see something you tend to dislike it, but over time this changes and you often come to like it.

This "mere exposure effect" has very important consequences for influencing other people. As I have often taught students, you should never present a surprise then ask for a decision; first get the decision maker familiar with the idea through exposure and then ask for approval, funding or whatever. Nobody likes an idea that they have just met for the first time. And if it ever appears to happen it means that somehow the person had already been exposed to the idea.

Whether the new Nobel Center will be built or not is not yet certain. I suspect that it has more to do with funding than aesthetics, but what will certainly help the proponents of the project is to get everyone involved in the decision in any way to be familiar with the appearance of the building. Otherwise it may end up being just another curiosity like the proposal of 1906, which to our unfamiliar eyes looks ghastly, but had it been built it would have been an essential part of the Stockholm skyline.


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