Have a crush on a coworker? Perhaps it's biological. We long to be close to those who are close by.
By Carlin Flora published January 1, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also breeds children. That seemingly special charm of your cubicle-mate, next-door neighbor or fellow Peace Corps volunteer may be merely a function of their being nearby and responsive to you.
Since the mid-1980s, Cindy Hazan, an associate professor of human development at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, has been looking into why we pair up the way we do. It turns out we long to be close to those close by.
Just as an infant forms a special attachment to his mother or caregiver, adult mates become attached to each other through a similar mechanism, Hazan and her colleagues believe. Attachment helps to secure an infant's survival; the bond between adults, while not quite so vital, provides the security and reliability they need to thrive.
Whether it's Mom or your wife-to-be, the presence of your beloved triggers the release of oxytocin, a hormone that induces a state of contentment and stimulates a desire for continued close physical contact. "Proximity is really the core of attachment. Familiar people have a calming, soothing effect on us," says Hazan. Zookeeper's logic applies here: Put two members of any species in the same cage, and they are bound to mate.
This scenario is often played out in the cage that is the workplace, where like-minded humans of both sexes are locked up for eight- to 10-hour days. "When you ask someone why he got together with someone else," Hazan says, "he will never say, 'Well, she was just hanging around,' but propinquity is a big factor. When you have repeated contact with someone, your attraction to them increases. If we have evolved to reproduce, then we shouldn't have to wander around the earth searching for an ideal partner."
What about fate bringing you and your soul mate together, no matter how many miles or office complexes away? "I'm reluctant to pooh-pooh the idea of true love, because it's such a treasured view in our culture," says Hazan. "But there is no empirical evidence to support it. First of all, anyone who has been infatuated more than once and has felt each time, 'This is the person for me!' knows it's wrong. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes zero sense."
We might declare, "I wouldn't date Bob if he were the last man on earth!" But Hazan thinks Bob would grow on us, and that a slow burn over time could boil into a full-blown romance.
Along with proximity, the attachment machine is fueled by stress. In 1973, four Swedes held in a bank vault for six days became enamored of their captors; the incident gave rise to the term "Stockholm syndrome." When 19-year-old publishing heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974, she was soon toting a gun, calling herself Tania and extorting money from her own family.
Hazan says that people nearby are likely partners in stressful situations, because of our natural tendency to seek comfort. "Any port in a storm will do," she says. On September 11, 2001, some strangers who were forced to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge together, or who were trapped in small spaces, reportedly clung tightly to their serendipitous "dates."
The third, and perhaps best, facilitator of attachment is repeated sexual contact. The success of arranged marriage demonstrates this phenomenon. There is no research on whether or not people in arranged marriages experience infatuation, says Hazan, but there is good evidence that they get emotionally attached. An estimated 60 percent of the world's weddings are arranged by family members or religious leaders. And the remaining 40 percent of couples shouldn't be surprised to find themselves cozying up to someone who was right there all along.