When Lucy*, 24, first started working as a waitress in a new restaurant, she didn’t look twice at her manager. But after around three weeks of regular shifts, she began to feel that all too familiar sensation whenever he was around: flushed cheeks, a racing heart, butterflies in her tummy. She had a crush. The thing is, says Lucy, “He’s not my usual type, and if I left [my workplace] I wouldn’t even think of him, but because I see him so often I have this huge crush.”
Another name for this is a “proximity crush”, which is driven by the proximity principle. This is the theory in social psychology that says we are more likely to be attracted to the people and things that are close by.
The proximity principle dates all the way back to 1960, when psychologist Theodore Newcomb conducted a study that found that college students who lived in the same dorm room were more likely to be friends with each other than other people in the same dorm building. Further research into platonic relationships has also validated the theory, suggesting that students send more emails to peers who live in neighbouring dorm rooms, and were more likely to befriend those they sat near or adjacent to in classrooms. More recent research from 2021 found that researchers who worked in the same building were more likely to collaborate on studies and papers. While there aren’t explicit studies that draw a connection between romantic attraction and the proximity principle, psychologists often discuss the theory in relation to romantic relationships, and it does link to another psychological phenomenon: the mere exposure effect, which says we are more likely to be attracted to those we see often, as a 1992 study found.
The bottom line is that while there are exceptions to the rule, we tend to feel more of an affinity with those we have more proximity to, whether that’s because they’re our colleagues, housemates or just happen to go to the same gym. In fact, it’s a theory that has been used (and abused) by brands for many years. As Dr Kelsey Latimer, founder of KML Psychological Services, explains, you’re drawn to a product or brand the more you see it in the same way that you’re more drawn to people who are nearby.
“You can be around somebody and maybe initially think that they’re kind of average in their appearance, but then you spend more and more time with them and start to see them differently,” says Dr Latimer. “You’re like, ‘Oh, look at their eyes. I see them differently, they’re actually really attractive,’ because of how our interactions with them make us feel.” This could be because they have an amazing personality, or because they’re super flirty. It’s important to note that proximity is only one factor at play, as the opposite can be true, too: sometimes a 10/10 drops to a four when you start to learn more about their personality.
This theory likely explains why Dani*, now 27, had a crush on her bus driver when she was 24. “The crush developed over a few months,” she tells Refinery29. “He wasn’t gorgeous or handsome or anything, he just had such a friendly face, and was the youngest male bus driver on my commute days. Also if I ever saw him out of my commute time, like at the weekend, he’d wave to me, which I thought was so sweet.”
Dani would always sit at the front of the bus so she could talk to him. “I learned a bit about his life and I guess it was comforting to have that interaction with a familiar stranger,” she says. “He was always very decent with other passengers, like, he once got out of his cabin to help [an elderly lady] on. That’s what I remember about him, mostly. He made sure people were on and off the bus safely. I know that’s not a huge deal, but kindness is important.”
That’s another thing that happens when we’re in close proximity to someone: our brain extrapolates data based on our interactions with them. “If you’re proximal to someone, or in their vicinity, it’s very likely that when you extrapolate from that, they’re going to have a shared interest with you,” Dr Sandra Wheatley, a social psychologist, tells R29. If you both go to the same gym, for example, it’s safe to assume you both enjoy fitness. If you keep bumping into the same guy in the library, maybe it’s because he loves books as much as you do. You may even extrapolate that they’re single, if you see them on their own all the time.
And the more time you spend around someone, the more you’re able to assume. Kara*, 26, lives in a shared student accommodation with more than 20 housemates, so it’s rare she gets to spend time around all of them. While completing a recent project, she found that she and another housemate were often the only ones up early in the morning.
What was once a friendship turned into a fully fledged proximity crush. “One day he was picking herbs from the garden and I was enjoying the view way too much,” says Kara. “It felt like a movie scene.” The turning point for Kara was that they started connecting on a deeper level, having intimate conversations about their feelings (all of which, upon reflection, Kara had engineered). But then he started to do nice things for her. “He left me a sweet note about self-compassion after I opened up about working on my self-hatred,” she says. “And he made me a coffee once… LOL.” All of this led Kara to believe that, while her crush acts like he has a hard exterior, he’s actually quite soft and sweet. “I was delulu, though,” she quickly adds.
Herein lies the problem with crushes: they are rarely more than a projection, and fantasising about your crushes, especially the unrequited ones, can be addictive. As Dr Latimer explains, when we’re attracted to someone, our limbic system is activated. “There are happy neurotransmitters [like dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin] that are going to be jolted when we’re exposed to someone we’re attracted to,” she says. “It can be highly intense.” Similarly, Dr Wheatley describes interacting with your crush as a literal “hit”: “You’re giving yourself a dopamine hit, you are giving yourself a dose of pleasure and fulfilment, and that is going to make you feel good,” she says.
This is why we often find ourselves distracted and daydreaming about crushes. And when you’re constantly in proximity to someone, it can be pretty damn hard to switch it off. This, Dr Wheatley explains, has something to do with the recency effect, another psychological theory that says you’re more likely to remember something that happened, well, recently. If you spent all day with your work crush on a Thursday, it’s more likely you’ll be thinking about them that night rather than the hot waiter who called you pretty last weekend. And it’s those constant interactions that keep your crush on your mind. But it only feels good if, of course, those feelings are reciprocated. “If it’s unrequited, that dopamine hit is going to be negated.”
If you’re constantly seeking affection from someone who isn’t actually into you, or if it’s someone you can’t have (yes, I’m talking about that flirty married guy in the office who never wears his wedding ring), it’s bound to have a negative impact on your self-worth. So what do you do if you have an unrequited crush on someone you see on the daily? One word: boundaries.
If you have to work with someone, make a conscious effort to stop flirting with them. If you see them in the gym, don’t stop to chat. Give yourself some healthy distance from your crush until your feelings for them have dissipated. The same goes for social media: just because you’re not seeing someone IRL, watching their stories, looking at their profile and checking to see if they’re watching your stories are all ways we stay proximate to people. So don’t be afraid to use the mute button until you’re a little less frazzled — it’s there for a reason.
On top of that, remember that proximity can only go so far, and while it’s true we’re more likely to be attracted to those we see the most, attraction is only one piece of the puzzle. “You need commitment and shared values, you need things that bring you to a deeper level, because that initial intense attraction doesn’t last,” says Dr Latimer. “You need to have something deeper holding you together.”
*Names have been changed