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Social Proximity Effect: Your Friends’ Habits Will Become Your Habits

The gist: You’ll mirror the habits of the people you spend the most time with. To build good habits, spend more time with people who already practice them.


The other day, I was watching an episode of Shark Tank—a reality TV show where struggling entrepreneurs offer up a piece of equity in their businesses for a chance to work with successful business people.

In this episode, one of the entrepreneurs ended up giving away a bigger portion of his business than he originally intended to close a deal with a shark (investor).

It was the right decision to make because his business was going to fail without some outside investment and guidance, but it was what he said during his exit interview that really struck me:

“Hang around four broke people and you’ll be the fifth. I’m glad I got a deal with one of the sharks.”

What he’s talking about is the proximity effect, and you can use it to improve important pieces of your own life.

Social Proximity Effect Turns You Into Your Friends

Humans are social creatures and we’re all highly influenced by the people around us each day.

There’s little you can do to control it. Who you spend your time with will have an impact on the way you behave.

In the example from Shark Tank, the entrepreneur understood that spending more time with other successful and wealthy business people would help him pick up the habits and mindset he needed to emulate their success.

But the concept doesn’t only apply to money.

People who hang around smokers or drinkers are more likely to smoke and drink themselves.1 And you’re more likely to buy things the people you’re closest to also buy. Their values become your values.2

Those are just two examples. The psychological influence of the people you’re close to is strong. Just look around for examples in your own life.

Examples of Social Proximity Effect

I recently learned several of my friends hire housekeepers to clean for them. A few days later, I was researching housekeepers in my neighborhood. These are people I care about and respect, so I’m naturally inclined to try to be more like them.

Look at your everyday habits. What do you do in the morning after you’ve showered and had breakfast? How do you behave at work? What do you like to do on the weekend?

Where did all these things come from? More than likely, they came from someone you met along the way who influenced you one way or another.

It could be a joke you picked up from a friend or a habit you inherited from your boss. It could be your relationship to money that came from your parents or a hobby that came from your partner.

It doesn’t take long for the proximity effect to start working it’s way into your behavior.

When I spent time in Buenos Aires I noticed that, within a few days, I had modified my behavior to fit the customs of the city. I wanted to act like a local. They don’t queue into lines, so I fought for a spot to checkout at the grocery store—something I wouldn’t do at home.

Deadlines are less important there, and I found myself being more lax with my schedule. I was supposed to check out of my room at 11:00 AM, but ended up staying well into the afternoon writing.

Here’s an interesting one: When someone spoke to me in broken English, I mirrored that broken English back to them. I knew proper English, I just didn’t use it because they didn’t. My reaction was automatic. I even started to pickup their accent.

There’s nothing wrong with this, per say. It’s simply a characteristic of humans and many other species. This is how we learn and how we relate to one another.

But it underlines the importance of being thoughtful about exactly what you expose yourself to for learning and who you spend time with and relate to.

Developing poor money skills or picking up bad habits could become a type of sympathizing you do to maintain relationships.

Harness The Social Proximity Effect to Improve Any Part of Life

If proximity effect dictates that we’ll mirror the people around us, then we have to carefully monitor who those people are. It’s the one variable we control.

The proximity effect is not just something to be wary of. You can harness it to improve your life.

If hanging around people with bad habits will cause you to develop bad habits yourself, then the opposite is also true: spending time around people with good habits will cause you to develop good habits.

If you’re a timid person, it’s probably because you spend the bulk of your time with others who mirror that same personality trait. If you want to be more adventurous, find adventurous people to hang out with. Go to a rock climbing gym or find an outdoor oriented group to join.

Want to start a business? It’ll be hard to do from inside a cubicle surrounded by other people in other cubicles. To improve your odds of actually starting, find a friend who’s already done it. Search your city for a local entrepreneurs get-together.3

If you have horrible eating habits and you don’t exercise, you might have a circle of friends or relatives that are the same. To change that, you have to change the amount of time you spend with that group and find another set of friends that eat well and do exercise. Opportunities to find people like this are easier than you think.4

In many cases, you hardly need to worry about doing the actual thing you want to do. Instead, focus your effort on finding people who already do that thing and build relationships with them.

Thanks to social proximity effect, that thing will most likely become a regular part of your life.

Your Homework Today

If there’s something you want to do or change about your life, then think of people you could spend more time with or places you could go that would allow you to take advantage of the social proximity effect.

Reach out to someone new today or catch up with an old friend who embodies a habit you’d like to build for yourself.

Footnotes

  1. Source: Close friend and group influence on adolescent cigarette smoking and alcohol use.
  2. Source: Reference Group Influence on Product and Brand Purchase Decisions
  3. Try Meetup for this. There are multiple groups in most major cities around the world. If there isn’t one where you live, try starting your own.
  4. My friend, Steve, runs a community specifically for nerds trying to get fit. There really is a group for everyone.