What Is Proximity Psychology?

Updated March 17, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Proximity psychology focuses on the process of grouping. Sometimes, the way that we group things in life can alter how we perceive them. These dynamics can impact the way we see relationships, hobbies, sports, and even physical objects. Understanding this dynamic and how to address it in our own minds can be a powerful tool for better decision-making in numerous areas of life.

Learn About Proximity Psychology And How It Affects You.

Proximity can play a significant part in how we relate to other people. Gestalt psychologists explain that proximity can improve observation and perception skills. We interpret many things in a relative way, from people to ideas to experiences. This is important because our perception largely influences how we behave.

The Law Of Proximity

This law of Proximity is a principle of Gestalt psychology that simply states that objects and shapes that are close to one another will eventually start to form groups. Even if they are very different, they will appear as though they are similar. This mainly showcases smaller elements and how they're assembled in a composition. This is known as grouping. This principle highlights the effects that are created when the presence of these elements becomes more meaningful than the presence of different features.

An example of this is arranging words into titles. This is a way to group otherwise unrelated elements that enhances the meaning of a concept. Grouping can have either a visual or psychological meaning and can even be entirely separate from the original purpose of the elements themselves. Sometimes the grouped elements create the illusion of shapes, planes, or even some sort of objects in space, even if they don't touch. Grouping can be attained by using different elemental attributes, including:

  • Physical characteristics

  • Size

  • Color

  • Shape

  • Tone or value

Why Use This?

This principle allows us to perceive certain stimuli that appear to be closer to each other through grouping. We can even recognize them as similar objects. In the same vein, items that stand out are typically parts of different objects. 

The same principle allows us to group smaller elements into bigger sets. Cognitively, this principle can be useful, as it can prevent the over-processing of various stimuli. We experience many different stimuli every day. You might consider all the things that you see daily, including different shapes, colors, and objects of all sizes. Proximity psychology can make the processing of the varied stimuli much more natural. 

This may be applied in social settings. For example, if you have trouble gauging the right social response in a given situation, it may be helpful to spend five minutes at the beginning of a social event scanning the room and observing people's dress, behavior, tone, and social pattern. It can be an efficient way to ensure that your body isn't overstimulated. Instead, eIements are viewed on a much broader scale, which may make it easier for your brain to process and comprehend everything.

How It Applies To Relationships

The principle of proximity psychology can be applied to your relationships too. People often unconsciously form social relationships with those who are physically or visually closest to themselves. Remember, proximity doesn’t just refer to the similarity between different objects, but also to how close these objects, including people, are to you.

A person who is sitting in a chair next to you is much closer than a person sitting across the room. You're closer to your lab partner than you are to a person who's three rows away from you.

Without any conscious choice, research shows you are more likely to form social relationships with those whom you sit near. You may become friends with your lab partner rather than with the person who's three rows away simply because you see them more often. In this way, proximity can have a significant impact on attraction, friendships, and romantic relationships. 

Learn About Proximity Psychology And How It Affects You.

This also tends to be how childhood friendships are made. Children don't have the autonomy of traveling outside their immediate sphere to connect with others. As we age, we enjoy the benefit of being around people who are similar in lifestyle, language, and habits. However, it can be important as we grow older that we address relationships with more maturity and intention. Diversifying our relationships can help to widen our worldviews. Proximity doesn’t have to be the only determining factor for our friendships.

Proximity And How It Can Alter The Way We See Reality

Perception can affect how we see reality and how we view objects. The moment you look at a picture, for instance, you're viewing a different reality. Pictures are essentially two-dimensional representations of a three-dimensional reality. Everything is on the same plane, and that's why the image reflected in the picture seems different from its actual existence.

This is also why if you look at separate pictures of various items, you may notice that they look different. Photos don't showcase the actual reality of the nature of the object at hand.

Is Grouping Always Right?

Our minds tend to associate similarities with one another, but grouping can cause problems because not all objects can be successfully grouped at all times. Grouping can also lead to labeling or even typecasting, which are typically unhealthy approaches to understanding people. People are highly complex and are not primarily defined subjectively as they relate to one another.

Increased Awareness Through Counseling

Many of us like to believe that the negative aspects of proximity psychology do not apply to us and that we live our lives relatively free of bias. However, negative grouping tendencies can take hold at a very young age. It can affect the way we relate to the people we meet in various contexts, including school, work, and social settings. It can also affect the way others view us. 

We all live with biases and tend to group the world around us in ways that we don’t fully understand. In some instances, however, our grouping behavior can reinforce stereotypes or even lead us to more negative thoughts and actions that harm not only others but also ourselves. 

To question your own biases, you might check out research on the subject, such as the following article from Harvard Business Review or other research on proximity, bias, and relationships. This could have implications for how you relate to others and how you navigate relationships with people at work, whether they’re your managers or your employees. 

Another way to learn about your own biases and grow during the process is to speak with a licensed therapist. If you don’t want to schedule an appointment to go into a therapy practice, you might try online therapy. Research consistently shows that remote counseling delivers the same treatment and success as in-person therapy options. 

Online counseling can a powerful tool to overcome any sort of perception issues. If you find that you sometimes misunderstand others or are misunderstood, you may benefit from talking to a professional trained in helping people improve their ability to recognize their biases. BetterHelp offers online licensed counselors who may be able to help you explore any biases you might have in a safe, nonjudgmental setting. 

Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing a range of concerns related to how we interact with the people around us.

Counselor Reviews

"Robin has helped me get through some of my darkest days. I've gotten a lot of clarity from speaking with her, and she has helped me understand people and situations by looking at it from a different perspective, which has been eye-opening. I can't thank Robin enough."

"I've only worked with Thelma for a short period of time, but she has been very helpful thus far. My biggest concern about counseling was that I would not be provided actual tools to help overcome the obstacles in my life. Thelma has eliminated that concern by helping me dive deeper to better understand the source of my problems and how I can work through them. I highly recommend working with her!"


If you have questions about proximity psychology and how it might be shaping the way you interact with others, consider talking to an online therapist. This is a common part of our psychology, and understanding yourself better may be the best starting point. Take the first step today.

For additional help & support with your concerns

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started