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Propinquity, Attraction & Mere Exposure Effect in the Age of Online Dating

·710 words·4 mins
Psyched for the Weekend

Does absence really make the heart grow fonder? Or is it the case that nearer is dearer?

As someone who has been in more than a few long-distance relationships, I can tell you that longing for someone is real. And intense. So I would have been one to tell you that absence can be a powerful aphrodisiac. That people who lived far away would be more attractive. Because a lot of my early relationships were with people who lived out of town.

However, that’s not what the psychological literature largely shows. Instead, there’s a long history of research ( including this classic study) that demonstrates that all else being equal that we tend to like people more who live close to us. Who we see every day.

This is because of a psychological principle called the mere exposure effect. Interestingly, we can tend to like things simply because they’re familiar to us. It doesn’t even take all that much, just having seen something a bunch. Advertisers rely heavily on mere exposure effect — name recognition can make a big difference in a competitive marketplace. Even an ad that made virtually no emotional impression on you can prime you to recognize it in the future. And people are much more likely to buy a brand that they’ve at least _heard _of before.

And so people in your everyday life are more likely to become attractive and/or likable to you than a mysterious stranger who traipses in from out of town.

Well, kinda.

All Else Wasn’t Equal

Because the entire premise hinges on those four words: “All else being equal.”

And when considering my own early dating life, the one riddled with long-distance relationships, all else was in fact not equal. In my own school surrounded by people who had grown up with me, people who had known me since I was hardly more than a baby, who’d seen me grow and learn and be awkward as heck, I wasn’t comfortable with my peers. And they weren’t comfortable with me.

There was a ton of baggage that a simple propinquity = liking equation couldn’t account for.

But I traveled a lot as a working musician. Frequently met new brand people who lived one, two, even three hours away. People who only knew me as a poised, cool, talented musician. Who had never seen me fall and skin my knees and cry like a baby. And had never heard me say the wrong thing.

And I likewise saw them as they were, not the awkward children they once had been.

And we developed such strong connections that we managed the distance — with prepaid phone cards, 10-10-220, snail mail letters, and the ever-so-occasional Hotmail via limited dial-up on Trumpet Winsock.

Because all else was not equal.

Technology Blurs the Concepts of Near and Far

Twenty plus years later, and all else _still _isn’t equal. Because the world has changed. Close doesn’t mean what it did anymore. Because I’m able to stay in touch with friends who are literally all over the world, and with less effort than I used to expend to see my local friends.

It’s not just online dating. Being online _period _makes it possible that you can be friends with — even fall in love with — someone on the other side of the world, and for them to psychologically feel like they’re right there. Most of the time anyway.

There’s still something to be said for one-on-one in-person time.

But technology has moved a lot faster than our brains have. And our gut emotions don’t seem to differentiate well between someone who lives right around the corner and someone who lives twelve time zones away. Our conscious minds can override that longing. Tell us it’s too far. That we don’t want to be in another long-distance relationship, having experienced how difficult they are in the past.

But that initial feeling? That pang of “Oh, I wish you lived closer…?”

I don’t think that ever goes away.


This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.


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