So far in my column, I’ve extolled the power of proximity on romantic relationships—the simple idea that we’re much more likely to form close relationships with people who are nearby.
I’ve also suggested that one reason for this is the "mere exposure effect," which is the idea that the more frequently we see someone, the more we come to like them. There’s really no denying the conclusion that proximity matters and that mere exposure works.
But how can you put this knowledge to good use?
In my next column, I’ll begin to look at how physical appearance shapes our social interactions, but until then, here are some simple ways anyone can apply what we’ve learned so far:
Enhance your "contact potential."
Some psychologists advise that you carefully consider where you meet people and whether you are maximizing your contact potential. As a simple exercise, make a list of 10 places that you visit every week. This could include your workplace, school, a park, a favorite store or a gallery, so long as they are places you visit regularly.
Once you’ve done this, rate each of these places for their "contact potential" on a scale of one to five, where one means you rarely encounter new people during each visit and five means you frequently encounter new people each time you visit. "Encounter" in this context should mean people you have some form of interaction with (or, at least, have a high chance of interacting), rather than just seeing them pass by. Standing next to someone at a bus stop would not count as an encounter in this exercise, unless you’re certain you might strike up a conversation.
Once you’ve done this, take a look at your ratings. The ratings you’ve given your frequently-visited places give an indication of their contact potential. The point of this exercise is to get you thinking about your local environment and the contact potential it offers. Think creatively about where you can meet new people. If you have low scores for all your places, you might want to consider visiting new places—joining a sports team or book club, for example—that will give you new opportunities to meet people regularly.
Or, if some of your places have high scores and others low scores, then consider whether there might be replacements for the low scorers. The pub that you frequent every weekend may not offer many opportunities to meet new people, but perhaps there’s another pub you could try? Or, as my students discover (admittedly after a lot of cajoling on my part), moving seats every couple of weeks results in more friendships than staying put for the entire semester.
Make "mere exposure" work for you.
Once you’ve spotted a potential partner, it’s time to make mere exposure work for you. Before any kind of interaction has taken place, repeated and regular exposure will, all things being equal, make you seem more likeable and attractive to your potential date.
Of course, real life is usually far more complex than life in the lab, but there are still ways of getting the most out of mere exposure. Some studies suggest that mere exposure reaches its maximum effect within ten to twenty presentations and there’s also evidence that liking declines after a longer series of exposure. The lesson: be seen, but not for too long each time, and make your move before ten or so exposures.
Don’t be afraid to take a step back.
It’s true, there are some specific instances when mere exposure does indeed breed contempt. For example, exposure to unpleasant or disliked stimuli doesn’t enhance liking. In one study, researchers presented participants with different pictures; some were shown just once, while others were presented several times. As we’ve now come to expect, when participants either liked or felt neutral about a picture after the first presentation, they gave more positive ratings after several exposures to the stimuli. But if participants disliked a picture, repeated exposure to it only served to increase their dislike.
There is a lesson here for unrequited lovers: if a potential date takes a dislike toward you, say because of a bad first impression, recurrent encounters will likely cement that dislike. Repeated exposure to someone we dislike helps us to rationalize and strengthen our dislike, so if you know that someone may hold negative feelings toward you, no amount of repeated exposure is going to help.
I have heard some "love gurus" argue that the key to overcoming another’s dislike is persistence: keep at it, they say, and you can turn that dislike into affection. But research shows that this just won’t work: when we form a negative opinion about someone, it can be very hard to shake off those feelings. In this case, repeated exposure will likely make things worse and the safest option is to stay away for a while.
Get out and about.
You’re clearly never going to meet someone sitting on your couch, so get out there. Getting involved in local activities that you enjoy, or simply would like to know more about, increases the likelihood of chance encounters with people who are similar to you. Don’t turn down opportunities—if you keep an open mind, you’re much more likely to find that one special person in a roomful of random strangers.
What’s more, regular activities don’t just provide opportunities for repeated exposure, they also make you feel better about yourself and improve your quality of life. More a life plan maybe, but it’s still good advice.
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