College accommodation offers a useful place to examine the effects of proximity on attraction. In one classic study, Leon Festinger and his colleagues studied the way in which students in college housing became friends. They reported that students were more likely to become friends with residents of nearby apartments than with those living further away. More recent studies have similarly shown that college students tend to date others who live nearby.
But why does proximity have an effect on attraction and relationship formation? The most obvious answer is that proximity increases the chances of unplanned social encounters between strangers and acquaintances. People who live nearby often attend the same schools, shop in the same stores, frequent the same gym, and so on, all of which increases opportunities for meeting and interacting.
In turn, interaction enables individuals to explore their similarities (another important factor influencing attraction, as we’ll see in a future column) and to perceive themselves as part of the same “social unit.” By reducing the functional distance between two individuals, we increase the likelihood that they’ll interact more frequently and find things in common.
Conversely, bridging geographical distance requires time, energy and investment. Of course, these issues would’ve been more important in times gone by (when traveling to another country or state required lots of planning and possibly weeks of hard travel conditions) but they continue to exert an influence on relationship formation even today. Some researchers have discussed the concept of “information fields,” the spatial distribution of knowledge that an individual has about their world.
Our information fields decay with increasing distance; that is, we have the most information about locations with which we have regular, day-to-day contact. Information fields are, in turn, associated with social circles, the group of people with whom we have the most regular contact. As this concept suggests, we’re most likely to form relationships with people who fall within our information fields generally and social circles specifically.
Third, social and cultural groups tend to be geographically clustered: we tend to live among people who are socially and culturally similar to ourselves. To the extent that we like people who are similar to us (remember the future column!), we will likely be attracted to others who live near us.
Is there more to it than this? Consider Festinger’s study of college accommodation: while the researchers found that students liked those who lived next door best, those who live just a few doors away can hardly be thought of as living at an inconvenient distance. In addition, those who live nearby could just as easily turn out to be enemies as friends.
In my next column, I’ll discuss the psychological reasons why proximity seems to breed affection more than it does animosity. This will include one of my favorite research findings from psychology: the curious case of mere exposure. Stay tuned!
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