Propinquity effect

Illustration of the propinquity effect: two people talking in front of building.
Photo by Armin Rimoldi

Those nearby to become friends: propinquity effect

In this article, we would like to cover an effect every person can fall under but few take it into account. This is material about the propinquity effect. Let's know more about the effect and see how it can be applied to building personal relationships.

Propinquity effect — the tendency of individuals to form relationships with people they repeatedly encounter [1]. The closer people are according to some shared measure (physical proximity and others), the higher propinquity they have in that aspect.

For instance, people living on the same staircase are more likely to form a friendly connection than people on different floors. Or, people sharing the workspace will likely get to know each other personally. Not resorting to physical proximity, the propinquity effect may be observed based on any shared quality, such as musical taste, favourite sports, or political preferences. occupation.

The propinquity effect and its manifestations look like something one can naturally expect from any social environment. And that’s reasonable, the effect invisibly influences personal interactions, so people might not even consider it a relationship factor. But why do things work like that, and what can we personally account for? Let’s take a closer look to find out.

Key study

Propinquity was brought into discussion by Festinger, L., Schachter, S., and Back, K. in their book "Social pressures in informal groups; a study of human factors in housing" (1950) [2]. In literature and media, that study might be referred to as Westgate studies. The authors performed a study of the community life of student couples in the Westgate housing project at MIT. They observed that common group standards and high-density friendly relationships were more likely to exist within one housing unit.

Core principle

Propinquity can be understood in terms of contact probability, which is the likelihood of interacting with another person [3]. We consider this definition broad but nevertheless precise. Every setting, physical, virtual, or even cognitive (existing in one’s mind), can induce associations or instigate interactions between people. From being in the right place at the right time to remembering about a friend when seeing their favourite food — all of these are propinquity manifestations, which ultimately increase a chance to talk with particular people.

This increase in interaction chances while having some degree of propinquity is believed to happen due to mere-exposure effect, another psychological model [4]. It states that people tend to develop preferences for things that are more familiar to them. Since regular exposure increases familiarity, that indirectly might lead to liking too. In propinquity set-ups, interpersonal exposures occur more often, hence the person develops familiarity with others.

Propinquity types

When discussing the influence of propinquity on relationships' development, researchers usually consider time-and-space or physical propinquity, i.e., when two people are in the same area [5]. Presumably, field observations are easier to arrange when a distinct propinquity measure, such as distance, can be picked naturally.

Although various types of propinquity can be outlined for the purposes of a particular study [5, 6, 7], such as physical, psychological, functional, virtual, spatial, temporal, relational, and others. Taken together, these types might not be mutually exclusive, therefore, their application capabilities are limited. Knei team introduces two classifications of propinquity types that can benefit the purpose of building individual relations.

First, the medium of propinquity (or type of exposure). It may help answer the question "How does possible interaction happen?”.

We distinguish three medium categories: physical, virtual, and relational.

  • The physical medium means that people stumble into each other personally, in direct proximity. During that, one can perceive the appearance, voice, scent, motion, and other facets of the person’s physical image.
  • Virtual propinquity describes people interacting on set-up platforms through specific interfaces. These interfaces — a chat window, for instance — disclose only partial information about the person.
  • Relational (or referential) propinquity, strictly speaking, offers no ability to interact directly. It is something that can be brought about a person by third parties. Your friend saying, “I saw Marty yesterday, he was doing well, says hi.” is an example of relational interaction, since now you remembered about another person, despite they are not “here”.

Second, the shared trait of individuals that may lead to interaction. In other words, "What do people have in common?”

Among common trait types, one can consider functional, residential, situational, and contextual propinquity.

  • Functional propinquity emerges when interaction may happen as a part of shared activity, like corporate or customer-seller interactions, that may lead people to establishing friendly relations.
  • In the state of residential propinquity, people living in the same neighbourhood tend to develop superficial connections, at least (to reduce uncertainty as well).
  • Situational propinquity means that people accidentally ended up in the same place at the same time. For example, came to the one pub or took the same bus.
  • Contextual propinquity* includes all grouping traits that may lead to them being mentioned next to each other. As an example, two people donated to the same nonprofit organization or liked the same post. Probability to see each other in the list of backers or followers then creates a contextual propinquity.


In applications, we would like to address the common sense notion from the beginning one more time: “People get into places, meet other people, make friends. What is so special about the effect of propinquity?”

Think about times when you might consider the propinquity influence on your life. 
First, choice. Choosing the place to live, choosing the job, choosing the school your child will go to, choosing the place to go out Friday evening, etc. This is an accounting for propinquity during initial planning. 

Second, reflection. Once inside the environment, starting to interact with people one seems to like, you can always think outside that setting: “Do these people are my people among all? Would I reach out to them if we didn’t meet regularly?”. If the answer is yes, you might have found a special connection. If no, you’ve just successfully accounted for the propinquity effect and are welcome to make some adjustments to your relationships.


  1. Propinquity effect, APA Dictionary,
  2. Festinger, L., Schachter, S., Back, K. (1950). Social pressures in informal groups; a study of human factors in housing.
  3. Reis, H., Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D. (2007). Intimacy. Encyclopedia of social psychology.
  4. mere exposure effect. Oxford Reference. Retrieved 23 Jun. 2024, from
  5. Chan, J.K. (2019). Urban Ethics in the Anthropocene: The Moral Dimensions of Six Emerging Conditions in Contemporary Urbanism. Urban Ethics in the Anthropocene.
  6. Wikipedia, Propinquity,
  7. Perry, Martha W. (2006). Instant messaging: virtual propinquity for health promotion networking,

*We are not sure about situational and contextual propinquity mutual alignment. Will probably to update the definition after further studies.

Prepared by the team of Knei, personal connections tool

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