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The Role of Familiarity in Attraction

Are your relationships a consequence of the “propinquity effect?”

Key points

  • We like things and people more as they become more familiar to us. This is known as the mere exposure effect.
  • The "propinquity effect" refers to people's tendency to form bonds, friendships, romantic relationships with people they see frequently.
  • Familiarity only goes so far. It doesn't make us like people with whom we have repeated negative experiences.
  • The benefits of familiarity peak at some point and can even diminish over long exposures.
Source: HaticeEROL/Pixabay

Psychologists have devoted a lot of time to trying to understand why we like some people and not others.

Despite decades of research on the topic, we still do not know what exactly produces chemistry between two people.

Familiarity, however, does seem to play a role in attraction. The more we are exposed to something, the more we tend to like it.

Researchers have tested this mere exposure effect by asking people to look at different stimuli (symbols, nonsense words, paintings, shapes) and report their feelings toward the stimuli. The more they are exposed to a stimulus, the more familiar it becomes, and the more they report liking it and feeling positively toward it. In certain conditions, this can happen even outside of conscious awareness.

The mere exposure effect happens to us all the time in real life – whether it is listening to a new song or observing a new fashion trend. At first, we may not like the song or trend, but over continual exposure, as we get more used to it, we start to find ourselves accepting and even liking it.

The mere exposure effect works with people as well: We tend to like people more as they become more familiar to us. This is most likely to happen with people we see frequently, such as our neighbors or coworkers. It is so common that psychologists have a term called the propinquity effect, which refers to people’s tendency to form bonds (friendships, romantic relationships) with people they encounter frequently.

Think back on the friendships you have formed in your life. How often did those relationships start simply because the other person was there? Were they a neighbor, classmate, or child of a family friend? How many of your friends now are people you met deliberately through shared interests, and how many just happened to be close by — people you went to school with, your coworkers, parents you often saw at your kid’s school or activities, members of your church?

Of course, there are other reasons that we end up befriending the people who are close to us. Still, familiarity seems to play an important role. The people who live next door or sit at the next desk are the ones we repeatedly see, and as they become more familiar, we become more comfortable and feel more positively toward them, which makes it more desirable to strike up a conversation and eventually begin a relationship.

In early research on the propinquity effect, social psychologists found that the closer students lived to each other in a dorm, the more likely they were to become friends. In one study, 41 percent of people were friends with the person next door, while less than 25 percent had a friend who was a few doors down, and only 10 percent were friends with someone at the end of their hall. I make a good case study for this: I ended up marrying someone who lived a few doors down from me in the dorm in my first year of college.

There are a few caveats to the role of familiarity in attraction. If we repeatedly have negative interactions with someone, familiarity doesn’t overcome those experiences: Time won’t make that rude neighbor more likable if they keep being rude. It also seems that liking peaks after about 10-20 exposures in studies looking at mere exposure to stimuli. Excessive exposure can eventually diminish liking. (Think about that hit song that you start getting annoyed by after it is played endlessly.)

A version of this may happen in our relationships, too. We might like people more as they become more familiar to us, but once we get to know them really well, there aren’t increasing benefits to exposure; instead, we can begin to take them for granted.

Learn more about the roles of reciprocity and similarity.


Bornstein, Robert F. (1989). "Exposure and affect: Overview and meta-analysis of research, 1968-1987". Psychological Bulletin. 106 (2): 265–289. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.106.2.265.

Festinger, L., Schachter, S., Back, K., (1950). The Spatial Ecology of Group Formation, in L. Festinger, S. Schachter, & K. Back (eds.), Social Pressure in Informal Groups. MIT Press.

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