Decades ago psychologists discovered that simply being close in physical proximity to another person increases liking and attraction for that person. College students in dorm housing liked their neighbors more than people living on other floors or buildings,1 and male students liked familiar women more than strangers-- simply for appearing in their classroom throughout the semester,2 despite not even so much as saying “hello.” Scientists call this the “mere exposure” effect.3 The more time spent near someone, the more people feel that they “know” that person, and feel comfortable being around him/her. This feeling of familiarity contributes to attraction (also see our post on "Where's the Best Place to Meet Someone?" for more on this topic).
Earlier this season on How I Met Your Mother (a popular sitcom about five young adults in New York and their relationships/friendships), the mere exposure phenomenon was in full effect, illustrated creatively through Barney Stinson’s "Mermaid Theory."
According to Barney, men will eventually feel sexually attracted to women simply as a result of spending time with them, even if they initially don’t find these women attractive at all. Even the least physically attractive people ("manatees") will eventually look like mermaids. Barney predicts that Marshall will one day feel attracted to his female secretary simply because she works in his office, and Marshall becomes worried he would someday feel attracted to Robin (a close female friend) simply because they hang out a lot. At the end of the episode, a ticking clock foreshadows Ted and Zoey developing romantic feelings for each other (in fact, the two started dating later on this season).
From a psychologist’s perspective, Ted and Zoey’s current relationship is not unusual. Despite their initial ill feelings toward each other (Zoey tried to sabotage Ted’s job) and despite the fact that Zoey was married, the two of them eventually came to express feelings of love that seemed to come out of nowhere. Time spent together as friends led to increased attraction and intimacy.
Although we are likely to feel attracted to people around us, scientists have yet to determine whether relationships based on proximity are likely to be successful or lasting. Mere exposure may turn people from friends into lovers (like Ted and Zoey) but will they live happily ever after? The answer has yet to be discovered…
1Festinger, L., Schachter, S., & Back, K. (1950). Social pressures in informal groups: A study of human factors in housing. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
2Moreland, R. L., & Beach, S. R. (1992). Exposure effects in the classroom: The development of affinity among students. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 28, 255–276.
3Moreland, R. L., & Zajonc, R. B. (1982). Exposure effects in person perception: Familiarity, similarity, and attraction. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 18, 395–415.
Dr. Dylan Selterman - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Selterman's research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their partners (and alternatives), and how dreams influence behavior. In addition, Dr. Selterman studies secure base support in couples, jealousy, morality, and autobiographical memory.