What Is the Proximity Principle in Psychology?

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What Is the Proximity Principle in Psychology?

The proximity principle in psychology describes the way relationships are formed between things close to one another.

In gestalt psychology, the proximity principle is one of several gestalt principles of perceptual organization and states that people treat objects close together as a group. In social psychology, the proximity principle suggests that people closer together in a physical environment are more likely to form a relationship than those farther away.

The Proximity Principle in Gestalt Psychology

Gestalt psychology was founded in the early 20th century by a group of German psychologists who wanted to explain how the human mind perceives visual information. This group determined that humans automatically impose structure on what they see, ensuring we're more likely to understand our worlds in terms of whole objects instead of disconnected bits and pieces.

To explain this, they came up with a series of principles that describe how we organize and interpret shapes, figures, objects, colors, and any other element that we perceive. They were dubbed Gestalt principles because Gestalt means "shape" in German.

One of the original Gestalt principles is the principle (or law) of proximity, which claims that things closer to each other appear more related than things farther apart. Proximity has remarkable sway over our visual perception, to the point that it can even override other factors such as similarity in color or shape.

Examples of the Proximity Principle

Consider this article. The words are organized into sentences, which are then organized into paragraphs. As a result, you see each paragraph as an individual group. Even if I wrote every other sentence in each paragraph in red, you would still read each paragraph as a unit instead of reading all the black sentences and then all the red sentences.

Organizing the sentences based on proximity overrides any instinct to organize the sentences based on similar colors.

However, keep in mind that the principle of proximity and the other Gestalt laws of perceptual organization are not infallible truths but heuristics, or mental shortcuts, that we use to understand what we see quickly. This is helpful from a cognitive standpoint as it prevents us from becoming overloaded by the plethora of visual information we take in daily. Yet, it can also lead to misperception.

For example, think about a photo where an object like a lamppost appears to be rising out of a person's head. When someone took the photo, the lamppost may have been far behind them, but we group the person's head and the lamppost because the three-dimensional space was collapsed into a two-dimensional image. In two dimensions, they visually appear to form a single entity.

The Proximity Principle in Social Psychology

Interestingly, just as our visual perception tends to perceive objects in close proximity as related, people who are in close physical proximity naturally tend to form relationships with one another. This is a much-studied phenomenon in social psychology. Even though proximity exerts an unconscious influence, research has shown it has a robust impact on who people interact with and form connections with the most.

While this means you are more likely to form relationships with people who live and work in the same city, it's also more specific than that. For instance, people who sit physically closer together in the same office or classroom are more likely to form relationships than those who sit farther apart. As a result, people may be more likely to strike up a friendship with their lab partner at school or their co-worker in the next cubicle than they are someone else.

Research on the Proximity Principle

One early landmark study on proximity by Festinger, Schacter, and Back found that a relatively homogenous group of students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were more likely to form friendships with other students who lived in the same dorm. Moreover, students were more likely to form close friendships with the people who lived next door to them than those who lived two doors down.

Part of this phenomenon may be explained by the mere exposure effect, which suggests that repeated exposure to a stimulus, including another person, can lead to an implicit preference for it. So barring the interference of other variables, people who see one another regularly due to close proximity may start to prefer one another over people who are farther away based on their frequent exposure to one another.

Some research demonstrates that even though people are more likely to form relationships with those who are physically closer to them, those relationships aren't always positive. For example, one study found that people are more likely to dislike those who live close to them. While friendship was also shown to be dependent on physical proximity, friendships required frequent face-to-face contact to thrive. In contrast, disliking thrived even if those who lived in close proximity rarely saw one another in person.

Thus, just as positive interactions with those in close physical proximity can lead to positive interpersonal connections, undesired actions by those nearby can lead to negative interpersonal connections.

Potential Pitfalls

While the proximity principle, as described in both social psychology and gestalt psychology, can help us more easily understand how objects and even people form relationships, it's also important to note that it can lead to pitfalls.

For example, say you go to a school with a homogenous student body and, therefore, only form friendships with those similar to you in factors like race and class. This can result in stereotyping and intolerance of those who may be different.

On the other hand, we could use the proximity principle to increase tolerance by ensuring a diverse group of people from various backgrounds, genders, races, and classes are represented in schools, offices, and other places where people are in close proximity to one another.

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