Nov 17

Proximity, Familiarity, and Relationships

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.


Apr 15

I’m Wearing You Down!…The Proximity and Familiarity Effects

Did you ever see the 90’s show Family Matters? It was a “Long-running ‘Perfect Strangers’ spin-off series centering on the Winslow family and their pesky next-door neighbor, ultra-nerd Steve Urkel” (IMDb). Oh, Steve Urkel, what a character he was! The poor kid was madly in love with Laura Winslow, who rejected him repeatedly, show after show. However, he was persistent and consistent and well aware of the proximity and familiarity effects, often telling Laura, “I’m wearing you down baby!”

According to the proximity effect, interpersonal liking is increased between people who live within the same vicinity and who have the most contact with one another (Weber, 2012). Therefore, you are more likely to become friends with a neighbor that you don’t have much in common with but you are in contact with regularly, than a person with which you have much in common but you rarely see. Weber (2012) explains it is the proximity that creates the opportunity for regular contact, which can then lead to a relationship. For the character Steve Urkel, although he was annoying and had little in common with the members of the Winslow family, they could not help but become friends with him because he was a nice enough neighbor and he was always around.

The familiarity effect often goes hand in hand with the proximity effect, as regular contact with another person increases familiarity which has been shown to make one feel more positive and comfortable (Weber, 2012). However, Weber (2012) warns that as familiarity increases the likability of a pleasant person, it can also continue to decrease the likeability of an unpleasant person. This negative outcome of familiarity is called environmental spoiling, and I can attest to its effects.

Before I moved to the location I live in now, my family and I rented the front house of a property containing two more houses behind it. During the last three years we lived there, the neighbor who lived directly behind us was extremely difficult to like. She would peak in our windows as she walked by, was rude to the gardeners, grilled our friends with inappropriate and personal questions whenever they visited and constantly complained about everything. Although I loved the house we lived in, I would find myself desperately hoping not to run into her every day I returned home from work. Her presence really did spoil our home environment, so much so that my family and I still occasionally bring up how happy we are to live where we are now without her as our neighbor.

Fortunately, for Steve Urkel, his genuine care for Laura shined through his quirkiness, allowing the proximity and familiarity effects to work in his favor. By the end of the series, he finally did wear Laura down and she returned his love by agreeing to marry him. For a sample of these effects and a moment of nostalgia, I leave you with this short video with clips from the show Family Matters.


IMDb (n.d.) Family matters. Retrieved from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0096579/

Weber (2012). Applying social psychology to personal relationships. In F. W. Schneider, J. A. Gruman, & L. M. Coutts (Authors), Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems (Second ed., pp. 351 – 364). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications

Nov 14

Beauty Pays

A beautiful smile in a magazine ad, a pair of seductive eyes in a commercial, a perfectly shaped nose on the barista that works down the street at the local coffee shop.  We have all experienced someone we consider attractive.  According to a Businessinsider.com article entitled, “Scientists Identify 3 Reasons Why Attractive People Make More Money” Drake Baer discusses recent findings that attractive people earn approximately 12% more than unattractive people.  This phenomena has been coined “the beauty premium”.

The study found that employers see more attractive people as also being more capable, more confident and as having better social skills.  But why?  Schneider, Gruman & Coutts (2012) believes that the human reliance on attractiveness is a form of primacy effect, meaning that information that is first received or presented to us gives the most influence in our opinion.

This tendency for bias is supported by Dion, Berscheid, and Walster (1972) who also found that people associate physical attractiveness with other positive traits, judging them to be better people altogether.  Assumptions such as these are called the physical attractiveness stereotype (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2012).  There have been a multitude of studies conducted to compare traits and attractiveness and none have found any significance in attractive people possessing “better” qualities (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2012).

So how can this information help?  It is important to understand that while attractiveness isn’t the most important feature of another person, and is certainly driven by culture, looks should be taken seriously -especially in situations that involve being evaluated (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2012).  However, it is possible to become attractive to another simply by being in similar situations or by having mutual interests (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2012).  Festinger, Schachter, & Black (1950) found that attraction increased simply by being physically close.  Moreland & Zajonc (1982) found that frequent interaction increased “perceived similarity”.  People are more concerned with matching attractiveness, also known as the matching phenomenon (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2012).  This can be interpreted to mean that employers are judging based on how they feel about their own looks.  Again, attractiveness is all relative.

In American culture, we value those who are individualistic, and are admired by others (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2012).  To beat the bias, there are several things one can do.  Immerse themselves in situations that put them in an attractive light and increase interactions with those that one wants to associate themselves with in order to to provide other options for evaluation aside from looks.  For example, perhaps begin frequenting coffee shops or restaurants that your boss enjoys.  Try striking up a conversation that involves pastimes or interests of your supervisors.  Become admirable in the office by excelling at your work.  This idea can be extended into other areas of life such as friendships, romantic relationships, etc.


Baer, D. (2014, November 10). Scientists Identify 3 Reasons Why Attractive People Make More Money. Retrieved November 17, 2014, from http://www.businessinsider.com/beautiful-people-make-more-money-2014-11

Schneider, F.W., Gruman, J.A., & Coutts, L.M. (2012). Applied Social Psychology Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (Second ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE

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