I’ve been living in Spain for over a year now. Enough time to completely change my social circle. Valencia’s expat life is quite vibrant and, if you really take the time to get involved, you get to meet a lot of interesting digital nomads. One of these recent encounters gave me a lot to think about, and it’s also the trigger for today’s topic: the proximity bias.
A couple of weeks ago I had the chance to meet the founder of WanderingEarl.com, a website which you probably already know. If you start typing “wandering” into your Safari address bar, the first Siri suggestion is that site. That tells quite a bit about the popularity of the blog.
As we started to talk, we realized we met before: it was about five years ago, at one of the events I was organizing back in Romania. After we got over the initial bewildering – “wow, how small this world really is, isn’t it?” – we started to talk about what we’re both doing with our lives. My part was short, I’m just a geek taking it slowly, whereas Earl’s part as a bit more complex.
Part of the business that he built on top of that blog is about tours. Specifically, about theme tours in various countries. As we kept talking, I realized that one of the most popular tours – and also the country in which he spent most of his time lately – was Romania. The theme for those tours? Abandoned buildings. Or factories. Or cities.
I couldn’t believe how many of the places he was talking about I already knew. Entire deserted factories, or buildings that I passed by hundreds of times, all these were part of my regular life back in Romania.
In all honesty, I never thought these could be of any interest for anybody else, let aside to be the foundation of a (very) successful business.
Introducing The Proximity Bias
And then it hit me: I was under a strong bias. Specifically, the proximity bias.
Every time you get “accustomed” to a certain environment, you are affected by that bias. And by “environment” I don’t mean only a certain physical context. You get the proximity bias in relationships too. From your close family – which you may have very strong opinions about – up to your long term relationships – which you may perceive as “static” or “boring” at times.
There’s nothing intrinsically “static” or “boring” about any of these environments. Or about these relationships. We’re just in those environments or relationships for a long, long time. And, alas, we’re wired to react to novelty as a source of pleasure. Once we get to “know” a context, to experience more predictability, our nature pushes us forward to discover more. Most of the time, this push is just craving for more pleasure, but that’s the topic of another blog post.
Back to our proximity bias. What’s the problem with it, actually?
We all know that “one man’s garbage is another man’s gold”, so the fact that for some people, some abandoned buildings, that I consider useless and ugly, may be in fact a source of beauty and value, it’s completely understandable.
But it goes beyond that. It’s not only about what I consider “useless”, but also about what I consider “standard”, “predictable”, “known”.
We tend to assign value to things that we don’t know, just because, well, we don’t know them. Maybe they aren’t useful, or beautiful, or profitable, but we don’t know that. Yet. So we set our expectations so high, just because we’re not “close” to them. Once we get “close” to them, once we are in their proximity, their value starts to decrease.
Take yoga, for instance. In the originating areas, yoga is just a practice like any other practice. Exaggerating a bit, it’s just like brushing your teeth. A healthy set of procedures. But add some “distance” to it, apply some “exotica” layer on top of these procedures, and voila, we have a brand new industry, with yoga mattresses in 10 different colors and textures, yoga pants, yoga shirts, yoga props and so on, and so forth. All these mattresses are just mattresses, mate. Rectangular shapes and some structure. You wouldn’t put any of those into your house before knowing about yoga, under any premises. But once they’re “far” enough from your system, they became valuable.
The proximity bias is strongly affecting how we’re perceiving value, because we tend to assign less desirability to the spaces and activities that we already know. So, instead of assessing how valuable is a certain thing, or a certain activity for our current situation, goals and expectations, we get triggered by the “novelty” part and jump on that train.
Most of the time, that train isn’t even remotely as exciting as we hoped it would be. So we get down at the first station, waiting for another one.
Truth is, most of the time, we’d be better of without any train at all. Just walking where we have to go, take the time to admire the scenery and enjoy the path.