Proximity bias is when we favor people or things that are physically or geographically closer to us while undervaluing those farther away.
What is proximity bias? Definition and explanation
Proximity bias – also known as geographic bias – is a cognitive bias that occurs when we favor or prioritize people who are geographically close over those who are further away.
The bias can reinforce the availability heuristic, where one tends to rely on information that is easily available – and this often includes information about people who are physically close.
When people are physically close to each other, they are more likely to have frequent interactions and exchange information, which can make that information more readily available to them. This can create a feedback loop, where people rely more on information that is easily available to them, further reinforcing their biases.
What is the impact of proximity bias?
Proximity bias can manifest itself in various ways. Read more on that below.
In social relationships, proximity bias can lead people to form friendships or romantic relationships with those who live nearby, work at the same place, or share similar cultural backgrounds.
Those can all lead to the formation of cliques or exclusive groups that exclude people who live farther away or have different backgrounds, which is closely related to in-group bias.
Additionally, the bias can lead to social exclusion, as people may be excluded from social activities or events based on their physical location. For example, a group of friends may regularly gather for dinner but only invite people who live within a certain distance of the restaurant.
In business, proximity bias can affect hiring decisions, as employers may be more likely to hire people who live nearby.
This can limit the diversity in the workplace and lead to missed opportunities for talented candidates who live further away.
A great example is seen with remote workers, who might not be given a fair chance due to the fact that they are not working onsite.
In education, proximity bias can lead to schools favoring local students over those from other regions or countries. This limits the diversity of the student body and leads to missed opportunities for talented students who live further away.
Another example is when a teacher favors students who are closer to the desk, which hinders the other students’ education.
Concrete examples of proximity bias:
- A manager always gives the best assignments to employees who sit near their office.
- A teacher grades students higher who participate more in class.
- A hiring manager hires people who live in the same neighborhood as the company, even if other candidates have better skills and experience.
- A company discloses information about promotions and career advancements to onsite employees first.
- An onsite employee received higher performance ratings than a remote worker regardless of objective performance KPIs.
- Remote employers and managers are left out of critical decisions and meetings.
Proximity bias in the workplace
A survey created by Slack, the messaging app for businesses, found that bosses are twice as likely to prefer that their employees are at the office at least three days a week.
In fact, the survey describes there is a tendency to overvalue colleagues who are physically present over those who work remotely, which is a clear example of proximity bias in the workplace.
When people favor those who are physically close to them, they are less likely to work with people from different backgrounds, which leads to a lack of diversity in the workplace.
Proximity bias in the workplace can manifest in a number of ways. Read some examples below.
When managers are deciding who to hire or promote, they may favor candidates who are physically close to them.
For example, they may hire or promote people who work in their department, leading to a lack of diversity in the company, as people from different departments may be overlooked.
This is especially problematic for people who work from home.
Employees who work in the same department as the decision-makers may have an advantage regarding promotion opportunities.
For example, as onsite employees are more visible to their superiors, they have more opportunities to network with their superiors, and they can be given more challenging assignments that lead to career advancement when compared to remote employees.
When evaluating employee performance, managers may give more weight to the contributions of employees who are physically present or work in the same location.
For example, they may give higher ratings to people who work in their department or who sit near them. This might lead to a lack of diversity in the performance evaluations, as people from different departments or areas of the company may receive different levels of recognition or rewards.
Additionally, remote workers may be overlooked or undervalued, even if they are performing at the same level as their onsite colleagues.
When people are choosing who to collaborate with, they may favor individuals who are physically close to them. For example, they may choose to work with people who sit near them or work in the same department.
This can lead to a lack of diversity in the projects, as people from different departments or areas of the company may be excluded. It can also lead to remote team members feeling isolated, disconnected, and undervalued, negatively impacting their job satisfaction and productivity.
Much like the previous example, when people socialize in the workplace, they may be more likely to interact with people who are physically close to them.
For example, they may have lunch with people who work in their department or who sit near them. This can lead to a lack of diversity in social circles, much like in the other examples. Additionally, remote workers may miss out on these opportunities, leading to feelings of isolation and exclusion.
Employees who work in the same location may have more opportunities to build relationships and socialize with decision-making – and this can result in preferential treatment and access to career advancement opportunities.
How to address and mitigate proximity bias in the workplace
The first step in mitigating the effects of proximity bias is to raise awareness of its existence. For example, companies can educate their employees about proximity bias and its impact on diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
By making employees aware of the bias, they can be more mindful of their own behavior and work to overcome it.
There are several steps that organizations can take in this area. Here are some examples:
- Implementing policies and practices that ensure remote workers are included in meetings and decision-making processes.
- Using technology to facilitate communication and collaboration among remote team members.
- Providing training to help managers and employees recognize and mitigate proximity bias.
- Fostering a culture of inclusion and diversity, where employees are valued and recognized for their contributions, regardless of their physical location or proximity to decision-makers.