What Is Proximity Psychology?

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Proximity psychology generally focuses on the process of grouping. Sometimes, the way that we group things in life can alter how we perceive them. These dynamics can affect how we see relationships, hobbies, physical objects, and more. Understanding this concept and how to address it in our own minds can be a powerful tool for better decision-making in numerous areas of life. However, the concept of grouping can sometimes lead to labeling and typecasting, which may negatively affect the way we view others. If you’re interested in examining your biases and addressing any challenges associated with the law of proximity, it may be helpful to discuss the topic with a licensed therapist.

Learn about proximity psychology and how it affects you

The law of proximity

Proximity can play a significant role in how we relate to other people. Gestalt psychologists explain that proximity can improve observation and perception skills. We tend to interpret many things in a relative sense, such as people, ideas, and experiences. This can be important because our perception largely influences how we behave.

The law of proximity generally states that objects and shapes that are close to one another may eventually start to form groups. Even if they are very different, they will likely appear as though they are similar. This mainly showcases smaller elements and how they're assembled in a composition. This is commonly known as grouping. 

This principle can highlight the effects that may occur when the presence of these elements becomes more significant than the presence of different features.

An example of this can be arranging words into titles. This can be a way to group otherwise unrelated elements that may enhance the meaning of a concept. Grouping can have a visual or psychological meaning and can even be entirely separate from the original purpose of the elements themselves. Sometimes, the grouped elements may create the illusion of shapes, planes, or even some types of objects in space, even if they don't touch. 

Grouping can be attained by using different elemental attributes, potentially including the following:

  • Physical characteristics
  • Size
  • Color
  • Shape
  • Tone or value

Why use the law of proximity?

This principle may allow us to perceive certain stimuli that appear to be close 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. 

Getty/Luis Alvarez

The same principle may allow us to group smaller elements into larger sets. Cognitively, this principle can be useful as it can prevent the over-processing of various stimuli. We typically 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 varied stimuli much more natural. 

This may also 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 patterns. It can be an efficient way to ensure that your body isn't overstimulated. Instead, elements can be viewed on a much broader scale, which may make it easier for your brain to process and comprehend everything.

How proximity psychology can apply to relationships

The principle of proximity psychology can be applied to relationships, too. People often unconsciously form social relationships with those who are physically or visually closest to themselves. It can be helpful to remember that proximity doesn’t always 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 generally much closer than a person sitting across the room. You're likely closer to your lab partner than you are to a person who's several rows away from you.

Without any conscious choice, research generally shows you tend to be more likely to form social relationships with those whom you sit nearby. 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. 

Getty/MoMo Productions
Learn about proximity psychology and how it affects you

This also tends to be how childhood friendships are made. Children don't normally have the autonomy to travel outside of their immediate sphere to connect with others. As we age, we can 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 widen our worldviews. Proximity doesn’t necessarily have to be the only determining factor for our friendships.

How proximity 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 may be thought to be viewing a different reality. Pictures can essentially be two-dimensional representations of a three-dimensional reality. Everything is generally on the same plane, and that's usually why the image reflected in the picture can seem different from its actual existence.

This may also be why, if you look at separate pictures of various items, you may notice that they appear to be different. Photos don't normally showcase the reality 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 may be successfully grouped at all times. Grouping can also lead to labeling or even typecasting, which can be unhealthy approaches to understanding people. People tend to be highly complex and may not be primarily defined subjectively as they relate to one another.

Increased awareness through therapy

Many of us may prefer 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. These tendencies can affect the way we relate to the people we meet in various contexts, including school, work, and social settings. They can also affect the way others view us. 

We may 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. 

One way to learn about your own biases and grow during the process may be to speak with a licensed therapist. If you don’t want to schedule an appointment at a therapist’s office, you might try online therapy.

Benefits of online therapy

Online therapy can be a powerful tool to overcome any perception challenges you may be experiencing. If you find that you sometimes misunderstand others or are frequently misunderstood, you may benefit from talking to a mental health professional trained in helping people improve their ability to recognize their biases. BetterHelp can connect you with an online licensed therapist who may be able to help you explore any biases you might have in a safe, nonjudgmental setting.

Effectiveness of online therapy

Although there currently isn’t much research regarding the efficacy of online therapy for identifying biases and correcting perception challenges, research consistently shows that remote treatment typically delivers the same success as in-person therapy options. 

Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp mental health professionals 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!"


In the field of psychology, the law of proximity generally has a lot to do with the concept of grouping and how we tend to be more likely to form relationships with those we consider similar to us and those who are physically close to us. In some cases, grouping can lead to negative outcomes like typecasting and labeling. To further examine the role of proximity psychology in your life, it can be helpful to speak with a licensed mental health professional in person or online.
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