By Emma Young
The idea that we prefer desirable objects – and people – that are physically closer to us has been around for decades. All other things being equal, a potentially dangerous animal that’s close is known to seem scarier than one that’s further away, and it’s been suggested that, in a mirror effect, a nearby desirable person or object is more enticing or attractive than the same one positioned at some distance.
But although this propinquity effect “continues to be a popular topic in introductory social psychology courses, there are surprisingly few works that offer compelling experimental evidence that distance itself influences affective reaction to an object,” note the authors of a new paper, in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, that plugs that gap. Their main finding: men tend to prefer women who are physically closer to them.
The researchers, from South Korea and Singapore, and led by Ji-eun Shin, ran a series of studies to investigate, focusing their attention mostly on male judgements of women.
In one, a group of male participants read lines from a modern musical version of Romeo and Juliet with an unfamiliar woman (actually a confederate helping the researchers) who was sitting either 80 centimetres or 150 centimetres away. Overall, those in the close condition reported afterwards that they liked the woman more. A deeper analysis of the data showed that this held only for men who were single, not for those in romantic relationships.
In another study, images of just the faces of eight women, who were matched for physical attractiveness, were presented in pairs, separately to each eye, of another group of male and female participants, with one face appearing to be slightly closer than the other. Both men and women reported liking the faces that appeared closer, and this effect was stronger for men who reported being less satisfied with their current social relationships.
In a separate study, single men watched a video clip of a woman (rated earlier by others as being “mildly attractive”) who stood either 60 cm or 150 cm away from the camera, and who gazed directly into the lens. Again, the participants reported liking the woman more when she was closer, and they estimated that they’d have greater success in asking her out on a date – in other words, she seemed more accessible. This effect was greater for men who’d scored higher on a questionnaire measuring their feelings of loneliness. (The researchers don’t mention the sexual orientation of these volunteers; it seems to be assumed that they were heterosexual.)
Overall, the results support the general idea that proximity amplifies liking. And the researchers also present preliminary data suggesting that people like other desirable objects – including hamburgers and wrapped presents – more when they are physically closer.
A closer hamburger might seem more appealing because it would require less physical effort to acquire than a hamburger that’s further away. But when it comes to interactions with other people, there’s clearly more going on.
As the researchers note, while strangers on public transport generally try to sit as far away from each other as they can, lovers “sit tight”. If someone is standing close to you at a party or in a bar, this may signal that they’re keen to interact – either to chat as a potential friend, or as a potential sexual partner. Especially for a lonely, single person, someone who seems to be sending this “accessibility” signal may then appear more desirable than someone who’s positioned at the other side of the room. “From an actor’s standpoint, it would require less psychological and physical effort to befriend a person who seems more approachable and socially receptive (conveyed by proximity),” the researchers write.
The researchers focused mainly on male attitudes towards women, because, they argue, men are less choosy about who they consider desirable for sex, and more likely to interpret a woman who is standing near to them as showing signs of sexual interest – so they felt a proximity effect was more likely to be apparent for men.
This new evidence for the “propinquity effect” is welcome, but mysteries remain about why it occurs and clearly more studies are needed on how it affects women’s feelings, and testing how it plays out in other cultures.