Growing up, my best friends were Madison R., Sarah T., Charlotte T., and Lauren W. My sister ended up dating the boy that sat next to her in history. My best friend dated a family friend and then the boy in her small college study abroad program. Another close friend married a man she saw at church each week. Despite the fact that all of these events seem relatively isolated, they actually have some elements in common. Specifically, each of these relationships seems to have been developed with the help of the proximity effect and the familiarity effect.
Originally proposed by Leon Festinger and his colleagues in 1950, the proximity effect is the idea that physical and/or psychological closeness increases interpersonal liking and attraction (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts., 2012). Interestingly, this phenomenon has been shown to be powerful in the creation of everything from friendships to life-long partnerships. Similarly, Schneider et al. (2012) note that increased exposure to someone can increase preexisting opinions about them, but, in the absence of preexisting opinions, increased exposure results in positive feelings due to familiarity and perceived similarity. Familiarity has been shown to be positive and reassuring for most people, while perceived similarity results in the assumption that people have more in common, facilitating warmer, more comfortable interactions (Schneider et al., 2012), all of which facilitate attraction.
So, let’s take a close look at how the proximity and familiarity effects have impacted the relationships detailed above. First, we have my best friends growing up: Madison R., Sarah T., Charlotte T., and Lauren W. With a W last name, myself, I was often seated by these girls in classes. In fact, my two closest friends from this time, Madison and Sarah, and I shared a locker in first grade (due to alphabetical order), and Madison, who is still my best friend to this day, lives about two minutes from my house. This is where we can see the proximity effect in action. Due to our last names, Madison, Sarah, Charlotte, Lauren, and myself were frequently in contact with one another. This allowed us to talk to one another and learn about one another, leading to comfortable interactions. Then, because we had so much contact with one another, the familiarity effect came into play. Positive feelings were enhanced and friendships were solidified. Interestingly, the closest of these friendships was that of Madison, Sarah, and myself, who, as “locker buddies” for an entire year, had the most contact with one another.
Moving onto my sister’s relationship with the boy she sat next to in class and my friend who dated the boy in her study abroad program, we can again see the effects of the proximity effect. The example of my sister is extremely similar to the example provided by Schneider et al. (2012) of Chris and Lee. Like Chris and Lee, my sister and this boy did not really know one another, but ended up sitting together in a history class in college. Due to this proximity, they began to become more comfortable with one another and learn more about each other, eventually breeding attraction. Similarly, when my best friend studied in London, she and another boy had schedules that were exactly the same. They lived in the same building and were in the same classes and groups during this semester. Like my sister and the boy in her history class, this close proximity led to easy conversation and eventual attraction.
We can also see the familiarity effect at play in my best friend’s relationship with her family friend and my other friend’s marriage to the man from her church. My best friend’s family friend was at their house very frequently, played on the same hockey team as her brother, so was often at the rink when she was, and went to the same school as her brother, so was often at events there, as well. While their eventual relationship was definitely helped by his proximity to the family, it seems that the frequent contact between the two is what truly made a difference. It increased familiarity and, subsequently, their mutual liking of each other. Similarly, my friend and the man from her church came in contact with one another frequently at church events, in which they were both extremely active. Again, this increased familiarity, as she became comfortable with him and saw him at a variety of different events. She also (correctly) assumed that they had a lot in common, another impact of the familiarity effect.
Essentially, it seems that when we really dig into it, many relationships, both romantic and friendly, can be traced back to some type of proximity and/or familiarity effects. As we saw with my close friends, they all had last names in similar regions of the alphabet, leading to us being grouped together frequently, increasing our proximity and leading to friendships. When we look at the romantic relationships of my friends and family, we can see similar effects, as well. My sister dated a boy because he sat near her, my best friend dated a boy because they lived near one another and had similar schedules and another because he was familiar to her, and another friend married the man she was familiar with because of church. Learning about how proximity and familiarity can impact our relationships is fascinating and definitely makes a person think about their own relationships. Moving forward, keeping these ideas in mind can definitely impact how we view others and develop relationships.
Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understand and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.