6 Factors That Block Friendship

New research identifies the reasons people have trouble making friends.

Posted May 31, 2020

We appear to be on the brink of a collective cultural singularity, and finding ways to build and sustain community through the chaos is protective against loneliness and distress, allowing us to find support, give and receive various forms of help, and build meaningful relationships to last an uncertain lifetime.

The more in touch with purpose we get and define how we want to invest our time, the more likely we are to consciously choose our relationships and personal pursuits, seeking to design experience rather than receive passively.

Only the lonely

Loneliness is a growing problem. A 2018 Cigna study of 20,000 people reported that Americans are lonely, with nearly half feeling left out or alone, over 25 percent reporting there is no one who truly understands them, over 40 percent reporting that they are isolated from others, and 20 percent reporting that they rarely or never feel close to anyone and have no one with whom they can talk. Only half reported meaningful in-person interactions.

Young adults (Gen Z, 18-22) are lonelier than those in other generations, suggesting an accelerating problem. The internet does not prevent loneliness, as rates of loneliness were similar in social media users and non-users. Likewise, the World Health Organization, in its Campaign to End Loneliness, reports that loneliness is a global scourge, associated with physical and mental illness, unhealthy lifestyle, and increased mortality. 

The Evolution of Friendship

According to authors Menelaos Apostolou and Despoina Keramari (2020), friendship evolved in small communities of 100 or less. Social forces were more critical for group survival in hunter-gatherer times. Cooperation among genetically unrelated individuals was necessary in order to accomplish key tasks together, making friendship an important addition to family relatedness.

The reasoning is that friendship evolved to create bonds beyond mating and family required for collaboration. Factors now important to friendship, such as extroversion and trust, would not have been as important in small, tight-knit communities where everyone knew everyone else and had to be together for the long haul. Friendship would likely have had different functions in a differently structured society. Mistrust is perhaps more for outsiders in that context.

What gets in the way of friendship?

In order to better understand obstacles to modern friendship, the study authors conducted a two-stage study.

In the first stage, they conducted in-depth interviews with a group of 20 participants about what gets in the way of friendship, along with an online survey of 108 participants asking for as many reasons as they could think up. All participants were in Greece and Cyprus.

Two graduate students reviewed all the responses, coding them into categories from the first third of the data. This set of categories in turn was used cone down on the reasons people report difficulty making friends.

In the second stage, 622 people recruited in public settings, about equally male and female, with an average age in the early 30s, were consented to a follow-up survey. They were asked to rate disagreement or agreement with each reason on a scale from 1 to 5, from 1 - "Strongly Disagree" to 5 - "Strongly Agree."

Researchers analyzed the results, finding the optimum fit was a 6-factor model, with underlying reasons and, in parenthesis, associated statistical weights:

1. Introversion

I am introverted (0.649)

I feel embarrassed when meeting new people (0.614)

I do not speak easily to people I do not know or have just met (0.590)

I am shy (0.584)

I expect others to take the first step (0.559)

I am not social (0.522)

I do not meet many new people, because I do not associate much with others (0.496)

I do not open up easily (0.483)

I do not feel comfortable for others to know things about me (0.406)

2. Fear of rejection

I fear rejection (0.790)

I think about what others might think of me and I get anxious (0.706)

I fear that others will judge me negatively because I do not have many friends (0.613)

I am worried that I will not be accepted (0.584)

I find it difficult to communicate with others (0.556)

I find it difficult to figure out what I need to do in order to start a friendship (0.531)

I am insecure (0.491)

I do not think I make a good first impression (0.432)

3. Pragmatic reasons

I have a disability that makes it difficult for me to socialize (0.816)

I have a health problem that prevents me from socializing (0.738)

I have psychological problems that prevent me from making friends (0.594)

I live in country whose culture is different than my own, which makes it difficult for me to make friends (0.586)

I am in a tight-knit group of friends that prevents me from making new friends (0.435)

I live in a place with few inhabitants and I do not meet new people (0.339)

4. Low trust

I do not trust others easily (0.723)

I am cautious (0.697)

I am suspicious (0.696)

Lack of trust due to bad past experiences (0.633)

I feel that others approach me with a purpose other than friendship (0.452)

I am very selective with whom to make friendship (0.446)

It is difficult for me to find people who are really interested in friendship (0.410)

5. Lack of time

Lack of time (0.849)

I work long hours and have no time for friendships (0.846)

I devote all my time to my partner and have no time for friendships (0.470)

6. Too picky

I do not feel like making new friendships (−0.650)

My age/I feel I have grown old enough to start new friendships (−0.611)

I do not easily give others the opportunity to become my friends (−0.553)

I easily reject people as potential friends (−0.530)

It is difficult for me to find people with who we have common interests (−0.495)

I find it difficult to find people to match (−0.361)

Analysis

Starting with most common factors—with average score and percentage of respondents with scores over 3 in parenthesis—the factors were: low trust (2.74 / 37.3 percent), lack of time (2.61 / 29.2 percent), introversion (2.4 / 23 percent), too picky (2.32 / 16 percent), fear of rejection (1.97 / 9.7 percent), and pragmatic reasons (1.55 / 1.8 percent). 

Women reported low trust as a bigger factor, and men lack of time due to devotion to romantic relationships. Women loaded more heavily on fear of rejection due to insecurity. Older participants were stronger on lack of time, too picky, and pragmatic reasons. Younger participants reported stronger loading on introversion and fear of rejection, suggesting that these factors become less important with age.

Making new friendships and rekindling old ones

Understanding the concrete reasons which interfere with friendship is interesting for people seeking to forge stronger bonds. This research, while in many ways confirming expectations, gives insight into which factors are most important. The results must be interpreted with caution as it represents a convenience sample with a limited age and cultural range.

Many of the individual reasons noted, and over-arching factors, can be addressed. Insecurity, pragmatic roadblocks, diversity of social experience, and many other obstacles can be overcome by someone seeking to cultivate more meaningful relationships. Given the growing epidemic of loneliness, friendship is not just important for personal satisfaction, but is also a matter of public health.

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References

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