Proximity and Attraction

Wind Goodfriend. Encyclopedia of Human Relationships. Editor: Harry T Reis & Susan Sprecher. Sage Publications, 2009.

Many traits or factors can lead to liking, lust, or love between two people; these factors include physical attraction, similarity, and familiarity, among others. Another construct that can lead two people to become friends or lovers is proximity, which is typically defined as the physical space or distance between two people. Proximity can refer to the actual individuals or their homes, workspaces, seats in a classroom, and so on. Two people who both live in a small town will, for example, have a closer proximity than if one person lives in Los Angeles and the other lives in New York City. Decades of studies that have investigated causes of attraction have found that there is a positive correlation between physical proximity and attraction—in other words, the literally closer you are to someone, the more you will like him or her. Classic research has been completed on the association between proximity and interpersonal attraction and why this link exists. With modern technological advances, the future of this topic seems open to new discoveries.

Classic Research

The most classic (and now famous) study that first made the proximity effect well known was completed by Leon Festinger and two of his colleagues, Stanley Schachterand Kurt Back. These three researchers investigated a small community named the Westgate Housing Project, which was part of the campus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). They wanted to know what would happen when strangers (in this case, MIT students) were randomly thrown together in apartment buildings—in other words, the students would have a close proximity to each other. Each apartment housed a married couple, one of whom was a veteran. Each apartment building included 10 single-family units, with five apartments on each of two floors. The researchers pointed out that the residents of Westgate were similar to each other in terms of background, interests, and life goals. The real relevance of this study for proximity is that the researchers wanted to know how physical closeness would influence each resident’s liking or attraction to the other residents in the complex.

Festinger pointed out that there were two kinds of proximity in this study: (1) physical distance from one apartment to another, and (2) functional distance. Functional distance refers to the idea that the buildings were constructed such that some apartments were more likely to be passed by. For example, if an apartment was at the bottom of a staircase leading to the second floor, all of the residents who lived on the second floor would have to pass that door. Thus, both physical and functional proximity were factors in this study and affected how often any given resident would be seen by the others. If two people see each other often, they are more likely to get to know each other and become friends. For example, consider neighborhoods. Individuals are more likely to know and like the residents living directly to each side of themselves, compared with residents who live three blocks away. Festinger found this pattern as well. When he asked people in Westgate to choose the three people in the entire complex whom they were most likely to see socially (in other words, their friends), they listed residents with closer physical and functional proximity to themselves. This general idea—that the physically closer we are to someone, the more likely we are to be attracted to him or her—is sometimes referred to as the propinquity effect. The propinquity effect was supported by Festinger’s research, as well as several additional studies (some of which are described next).

Why Does Proximity Lead to Attraction?

Why does either proximity (physical or functional) lead to attraction? In some ways, this may seem obvious—if you have more chances to talk with someone because you see him or her more often, it is more likely that you will get to know each other, discover similarities, and become friends or start dating. A second explanation comes from a reward-cost perspective. Consider a couple that is involved in a long-distance relationship. The costs of that relationship are both tangible (e.g., the financial burden of driving or flying to see each other) and intangible (e.g., the extra time and sacrifices needed to maintain the relationship). The costs of dating someone with a close physical proximity are much less. Thus, when considering potential romantic partners, individuals with a closer proximity may have an advantage simply because they are close by.

In addition to these two explanations, a third perspective has been popular in research studying the proximity effect of attraction. It may be that simply being around something or someone more often leads to liking because we are comfortable with that object or person—we know what to expect. This would not require any communication or conversation with the other people—just looking at their pictures should make us more attracted to them. This phenomenon is called the mere exposure effect and is defined as the tendency to grow to like things over time merely because of repeated exposure.

The mere exposure effect has been shown to predict attraction. Infants are more likely to smile when they see photographs of people they have seen before, compared with strangers. Student liking of other people in a classroom goes up the more often those other people attend class over a given semester and how close their seats are to each other (even in a small room). The mere exposure effect can even work subliminally. People who view Chinese characters and geometrical shapes subliminally (too quickly to recognize) are more likely to report liking those same characters later, and the liking is stronger than their feelings toward never-viewed characters. The idea for proximity is that if one person has a close physical or functional distance to someone else, they’ll be exposed to each other more and more, and over time they will grow to like each other due to this exposure. Of course, if the person is unpleasant or rude, repeated exposure can lead to the opposite: growing dislike. One study showed that, although it is true that our friends are more likely to live close by, so too are enemies. At the least, overexposure can lead to boredom and the desire for something new.

Although these exceptions to the rule certainly exist, the heart of the matter is that, all else being equal, physical proximity can lead two people to become friends and eventually even fall in love. Proximity can thus help with initial attraction, and it can also maintain attraction. For example, findings show that long-distance partners are less satisfied with their relationships.

However, with advances in modern technology, people are meeting potential partners in different ways. Specifically, computer-based communication networks such as e-mail, Facebook, and MySpace are extremely popular for keeping in touch with people who are far away. Today, perhaps physical proximity is not as necessary because computers allow for a close functional proximity—a lover is only a double click away. Indeed, people are now able to have live video chats with each other from the other side of the world. Researchers are just beginning to explore how long-distance relationships may be helped by this form of functional proximity (sometimes called communication proximity). One finding is that people seem to feel high emotional intimacy with people they meet online relatively quickly. However, if people don’t meet face to face, it may lead to problems ranging from inability to see nonverbal cues all the way to dishonesty about one’s age or gender, as well as cyberstalking. Although technological proximity may help already formed relationships stay “close,” some signs are pointing to possible dangers of attempting to form new relationships using only these methods.

In addition to the physical, functional, and communication forms of proximity, a fourth type has been suggested by Malcolm Parks. Parks adds that social proximity may also affect individuals; social proximity can be defined as the extent to which two individuals’ social networks overlap. In other words, how many friends do they have in common? Social proximity can also lead to attraction. In one study done in The Netherlands, for example, two thirds of individuals reported that, before they started dating their current partner, they knew at least one (if not more) of that person’s friends or family members. Social proximity leading to attraction makes sense because the more social ties two people have in common, the more likely they are to meet and become acquainted.

Applications and Future Trends

Finally, proximity has applicability in almost any natural setting. For example, because of the findings on proximity and attraction, some architects are designing housing complexes and workplaces in patterns that will increase proximity. For example, cubicle walls in an office can be short enough that people can see over them to talk to each other. A water cooler can be placed in a central location to encourage social gatherings. The link between proximity and attraction is robust and can be applied to many different kinds of settings. It even seems likely that this phenomenon explains why young boys are so likely to have a crush on the girl next door.