The Hidden Brain

Our unconscious biases.

How To Win Friends (The Sad Truth)

Children Who Like Others Like Themselves Make Friends More Easily

In any class of children, you’ll see the usual bunch of outgoing kids and those who like to play by themselves or in smaller groups. But being gregarious in itself is not the only predictor of developing friendships – new research suggests that children who are drawn to others who are like themselves (as opposed to children who are drawn to others different from themselves) are more likely to have best friends — and to acquire best friends if they don’t have them already.

That’s the conclusion of research by Julie C. Bowker, Bridget K. Fredstrom, Kenneth H. Rubin, Linda Rose-Krasnor, Cathryn Booth-LaForce and Brett Laursen. The researchers observed fifth and sixth grade children as they made, lost and sought friendships over the period of a little more than a year. One group of children had best friends at the start and best friends at the end of the study period, a second group had no best friend at the start but a best friend at the end. A third group, for whom we may now shed a silent tear, had no best friends at either the beginning nor the end of the study period.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

The researchers found that compared to the kids who never had a best friend, the children who always had best friends and those who acquired best friends when they didn’t have one tended to be those who were drawn to others just like themselves – or to use the lingo of the academics, these children were drawn to “similar others.”

I speak at length in The Hidden Brain about how the friendship-formations of children are one of the earliest examples of the hidden brain at work and how, without anyone intending it, friendships are shaped by unconscious biases. Having a close friend from another race, researchers have found, is one of the best predictors of a sympathetic worldview toward the other race in general, whereas not having close friends from another race tends to close the door to a generous view.

The fact that children who make friends easily are drawn to others like themselves is an example of how something that has clearly positive benefits – the ability to make friends – also has a side to it that is less attractive. It also shows why we are stuck with many of the biases that dog us everyday. The same thing that helps us make friends (being drawn to others like ourselves) can also prompt us to close our minds to those from other groups.

No one would recommend that children stop making friends, or stop enjoying the company of those who share the same interests (or race or sports team or socioeconomic background.) The only way to eliminate the bad without eliminating the good is to supplement our unconscious bias to be drawn to others who are like ourselves by consciously encouraging ourselves and our children to form friendships with those who are different in all kinds of ways.

Liked this? Please click on the Suggest To Friends link on The Hidden Brain’s Facebook page (www.facebook.com/hiddenbrain) to alert your friends to new puzzles and ideas.

Shankar Vedantam is a science reporter with National Public Radio and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University.

more...

Subscribe to The Hidden Brain

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.