By Jeff Howe, published on March 1, 1999 - last reviewed on June 24, 2009
A child has promised to meet a good friend to talk over some problems he's been having, but a new classmate asks her to go to a concert instead, all expenses paid. How does she make up her mind? It depends on where she lives.
The importance of close friendship during the teenage years is universal, say researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. It's getting to that stage that varies between cultures.
After posing the above scenario to children between the ages of seven and 15 living in Iceland and mainland China, Monika Keller, a researcher at the Planck Institute, found that both younger Chinese and Icelandic children chose to hang out with the new kid, while 15-year-olds opted to keep the date with their old friend.
The justifications for their decisions, however, differed dramatically. The younger Icelandic children seemed to see the dilemma as a conflict between friendship and pure self-interest (a free rock show!)--and chose the latter. This reflects an Icelandic value of personal freedom. Meanwhile, Chinese children faced an anxiety-inducing clash between two obligations: staying loyal to friends and helping to integrate a new child into the social network.
Both goals are consistent with the Chinese emphasis on putting the group first.
By age 15, both Icelandic and Chinese students had chosen to meet the old friend. But while Icelandic teens seemed to sacrifice their self-interest for what they thought was the right moral choice--sticking with their old pal--their Chinese counterparts traded altruistic virtue for close friendship. Developmentally, says Keller, it takes Icelandic kids a few years to learn to do the right thing, while Chinese kids seem to pursue a moral path from an early age. Either way, it's clear that by the teen years, forming friendships has become a transcultural priority which supercedes others. Despite moral and cultural motivations, peers become most important.