When I’m not near the one I love, I love the one I’m near.
—E. Y. Harburg, Finian’s Rainbow
Proximity and Repeated Exposure
We never really think about it, but is it really surprising that students who take the same courses, sit next to each other in class, or live side by side in dorm rooms tend to develop closer friendships than those who don’t? Sales people in large department stores form closer friendships and ties with those who work alongside them in the same department than with people who work just several yards away in another area.
Are humans just natural love-magnets that attract people who are physically close to us? Or, is there some other explanation for the strong positive effect of proximity? One of the most interesting explanations was offered by researcher Robert Zajonc, who viewed the positive effect of physical proximity as the result of “repeated exposure.” Repeated exposure, it turns out, increases our liking for practically everything, from the routine features of our lives to clothing choices, foods, music, and people.
People Don’t Like What’s Not Familiar to Them
Humans have an inborn discomfort to people and environments that are not familiar to them. On top this, we are socialized from a very young age to avoid unfamiliar things and people. Do you recall your mom telling you, “don’t touch that, you don’t know where its been” or “don’t talk to strangers”? And even as adults, it’s very unlikely that we would respond positively to a stranger, even though this fear is completely irrational. How would you feel if a guy randomly approached you on the street and told you that he would like to get acquainted with you? Most of us are likely to assume that the stranger is crazy, drunk, trying to sell us something, convince us of something, or even hurt us.
…But They Like What’s Familiar To Them
But what if we have seen this same stranger every time you went shopping at the supermarket or on the bus on your way to school – would you react differently? More likely than not, you would. Repeated exposure tells us that the person, or thing, is not dangerous, and it puts us at ease. This occurs even when we are not consciously aware that we were exposed to a particular person. In a study that demonstrated this, subjects were asked to talk about some neutral topic with two people who were confederates of the experimenter. Before the conversation, a photograph of one of the confederates was flashed on a screen so quickly that the subjects were unaware of it. Despite their lack of awareness of this subliminal exposure, the subjects still responded more favorably toward the familiar person than they did toward the person whose photograph was not flashed.
In another experiment, men and women who did not know each other were asked to look in each other’s eyes for 2 minutes (a long time when you look into the eyes of someone you do not know). The result was that both the men and the women reported an increase in their romantic attraction to the person with whom they locked eyes. Of course, this is not practical in a real life situation. Saying to someone, “let’s look into each other’s eyes for two minutes” would likely be perceived as bizarre rather than romantic.
Repeated Exposure Intensifies All Feelings, Positive and Negative
So let’s say there’s a guy at work you don’t like or you don’t get along with. Should you spend more time with him or ask him to lock eyes with you for two minutes? NOOOOO.
When someone annoys us, repeated exposure, rather than making us like that person more, will intensify our negative feelings. This explains why police records show that most acts of violence do not happen between strangers, but between people who are close, such as husband and wife, family members, friends, and neighbors. In other words, repeated exposure intensifies the dominant emotion in the relationship. When the dominant emotion is anger, repeated exposure enhances the anger.
Suggestions for People Seeking Love
Try to arrange your life in a way that allows you to have many opportunities to meet people you want to engage in a friendship or relationship with regularly through your workplace, residence, or recreational activity. An opportunity to meet and get acquainted is almost a prerequisite for the development of a romantic relationship. But, meeting once is not enough. Don’t count on “love at first sight” because that rarely happens. Repeated exposure is much more powerful and reliable than waiting for someone to pop up out of the blue and confess their love to you.
But keep in mind, meeting repeatedly does not guarantee love. Just as much as repeated exposure can increase positive feelings of you in someone, a negative impression can be exacerbated by repeated exposure as well. If the first impression is negative, it is best to cut contact, let the first impression dissipate, and then give the relationship another chance. In such a case, repeated exposure will not change the initial dislike or disdain into love but will most likely increase them.
Kellerman, J., Lewis, J., & Lard, J. D. (1989). Looking and loving: The effects of mutual gaze on feelings of romantic love. Journal of Research in Personality.
White, G. L. & Shapiro, D. (1989). Don’t I know you? Antecedents and social consequences of perceived similarity. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Bornstein, R. F., Leone, D. R., & Galley, D. J. (1987). The generalizability of subliminal mere exposure effects: Influence of stimuli perceived without awareness on social behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Pierce, C. A., Byrne, D., & Aguinis, H. (1996). Attraction in organizations: A model of workplace romance. Journal of Organizational Behavior.