Propinquity refers to the proximity or physical closeness of one person to another. The greater the degree of propinquity, the more likely that two people will be attracted to each other and become friends. Propinquity is usually thought of in terms of functional distance—that is, the likelihood of coming into contact with another person—rather than sheer physical distance.
Propinquity Background and Modern Usage
Research on the effects of propinquity rests on the common-sense premise that one is unlikely to become friends with someone whom one has never met. Beyond this simple principle, however, is a set of observations and implications with considerable relevance for understanding how people move from initial encounters to the development of friendship. The power of propinquity is illustrated by a well-known finding from the Maryland State Police Training Academy. When aspiring police officers were asked to name their best friend in their training class, most named someone whose name, when placed in alphabetical order, was very close to their own. This result is readily attributed to the use of alphabetical name position for dormitory assignments and training activities.
Among the various explanations for propinquity effects, two have received the most support. One is termed the mere exposure effect. All other things being equal, the more often a person is exposed to a particular stimulus, the more favorably that stimulus tends to be evaluated. This has been shown with abstract paintings, letters of the alphabet, names, faces, and people. Thus, according to the mere exposure explanation, propinquity influences attraction because physical closeness increases familiarity and hence liking for other persons.
A second explanation is more interactive in nature. Physical proximity increases the frequency of encounters, and thereby creates opportunities for interaction. Because most of our interactions tend to be on the positive side of neutral, propinquity breeds positive experiences, which in turn foster attraction and friendship. In other words, propinquity creates opportunities to interact with others; more often than not, these interactions are rewarding and enjoyable in a way that promotes friendship formation. This explanation suggests an important exception to the propinquity-attraction rule: In circumstances in which people are predisposed in a more negative way—for example, because of substantial value differences, bias, or competing interests—propinquity should increase the likelihood of disliking. Research has shown that this is indeed the case.
The idea that functional distance may matter more than simple physical proximity reflects both of these explanations. Many factors other than sheer distance affect the frequency with which people encounter one another—for example, the physical and temporal layout of everyday routines such as going to work, health clubs, and recreation. Moreover, in the modern world, propinquity may also be cultivated electronically, such as by e-mail, instant messaging, and cell phones. Although the principle of propinquity may be timeless, the ways in which propinquity is established are ever-changing.
- Bornstein, R. F. (1989). Exposure and affect: Overview and meta-analysis of research, 1968-1987. Psychological Bulletin, 106, 265-289.
- Segal, M. W. (1974). Alphabet and attraction: An unobtrusive measure of the effect of propinquity in a field setting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30, 654-657.