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The New Science of Friendship

Friendship rules in ways both obvious and subtle

For a long time, friendship has been the neglected relationship of the social sciences. There is a vibrant science of relationships, with its own journals and conferences and courses and all the rest. But it has focused overwhelmingly on romantic relationships, thereby turning a mighty big concept (“relationships”) into something small-minded and just plain small.

Now, slowly, that’s changing. There is more research on friendship, and more sophisticated research.

The early studies asked straightforward, often descriptive questions. What kinds of people become friends? Is friendship different at different ages? Is it different for boys compared to girls, men compared to women? They are important questions, and the kinds of questions that a discipline needs to answer in its early stages. But the questions, and the ways they were addressed, were not all that imaginative.

So let’s consider some of the ways in which contemporary researchers explore a significant question such as, what is friendship good for? Robert Louis Stevenson had a quip about that; he said that “a friend is a present you give yourself.” Intuitively, we probably all surmise that friends (well, at least the “good” ones) give us confidence and self-esteem. How would you show that with research?

In a particularly clever demonstration of the rewards of friendship, participants in study stood in front of a hill, either alone or alongside a friend, and estimated how steep it seemed. With a friend at their side, they thought the hill was less steep. In another variation, all participants stood alone but some were asked to think about a friend. Merely bringing a friend to mind again made the climb seem less daunting.

We also like ourselves better when we think about the friends who are important to us. Taking a moment to consider what we appreciate about our friends can also help us cope with our own shortcomings. In several studies, people took a test and then spent some time thinking about a warm and positive friendship, a cold and negative relationship, or a neutral relationship with an acquaintance. Then they were told that their performance on the test was not very good. If that happened to you, what would you want to do? Banish it from your mind and walk away? Or accept an opportunity to learn more about the skill that was tested and how to improve it? In the study, the people who were most open to working on their deficiencies were those who thought about their good friends.

A whole different kind of question about friendship might be something like this: What’s with the people who keep accumulating more and more friends? A pair of social psychologists thought that part of the answer might come from people’s experiences of moving around a lot, versus staying put, when they were children. Maybe kids who moved frequently during childhood found that their friendships were often in flux and that it was hard to maintain them. As a result, they might want to have more friends than people who did not change addresses all that often.

Here’s what they found:

“…first-year college students who had moved frequently during childhood had larger social networks, namely, more Facebook friends on campus, than those who had not moved. Interestingly, when the number of Facebook friends on campus was examined 2 months later, frequent movers had made more new friends on campus than had nonmovers.”


Kumashiro, M., & Sedikides, C. (2005). Taking on board liability-focused information: Close personal relationships as a self-bolstering resource. Psychological Science, 16, 732-739.

Oishi, S. (2010). The psychology of residential mobility: Implications for the self, social relationships, and well-being. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 5-21.

Schnall, S., Harber, K. D., Stefanucci, J. K., & Proffitt, D. R. (2008). Social support and the perception of geographical slant. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 1246-1255.

[Notes: (1) My previous post, Why friendship is the key relationship of the 21st century, may also be of interest. (2) In Friendsight: What Friends Know that Others Don’t, I’ve collected some of my journal articles on that topic. Paperback is here and ebook is here. (3) I have also written other blog posts on friendship; you can find links to them by going to the Friendship section of this post. (4) Finally, check out my latest elsewhere if you are interested, listed below.]

Is marriage at 40 a lateral move?

Moving to a new place is a whole different experience for introverts than for extraverts

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