Your Friends Don't Want You to Be Nice to Strangers

New research helps explain the science of friendship.

Posted Jun 25, 2018

Source: roasd/Flickr

What are friends for?

One reason is that we enjoy being around them. And we can count on them in times of need. It feels good to know our friends enjoy being around us, and it gives us pleasure to help them, too.

These are proximate reasons for friendship. In evolutionary science, proximate reasons are the direct explanations for why something has occurred.

We like to eat pastries. The proximate reason for why we enjoy pastries is that they taste good.

But in evolutionary science, there are also ultimate reasons. Ultimate reasons are the more distant explanations for why evolution favors certain traits or behaviors.

We like sugary food. The ultimate reason for this is because calorie-rich foods gave our ancestors energy. Nature selected those who enjoyed sugar. And our ancestors passed this affinity for sugary treats to us.

Still, none of us think, “I am eating this cronut because it is full of energy and evolution made me do it.” We just like the taste.

Likewise for friendship. There are proximate and ultimate reasons we have friends.

Consider a series of studies led by Alex Shaw at the University of Chicago. The researchers found that people have distinct expectations for their friends compared to others.

Researchers randomly assigned participants to read different stories.

Participants imagined they were at a bar with two other people. One person was an acquaintance (Casey), and another person was a friend (Jamie):

Imagine that you and your close friend Jamie are out at a bar. The two of you start talking to Casey, a new person you and Jamie recently met.

After sitting in the bar for an hour, you and Casey get into a big argument and eventually start yelling, screaming, and cursing at each other.

Finally, Casey says, “What's your problem? Why are you being such a jerk?” You say, “Me? You're the one being a jerk.” Then Casey looks at Jamie, “Who's being the jerk?”

Researchers varied how the friend (Jamie) responded. In the neutral condition, the friend replies, “I’m not getting involved.” In the “sided against” condition, the friend says to the participant, “You were being the jerk and you should apologize.”

In the “sided with” condition, the friend says, “Casey, you were being the jerk so you should apologize.

Researchers then measured how close the participant felt to Jamie (the friend). Specifically, participants answered whether they would feel more or less close to Jamie, given what had happened.

Next, participants answered whether the interaction with Jamie strengthened or damaged their relationship.

Third, participants rated the likelihood that they would side with the friend (Jamie) if they needed support in a future conflict.

It’s no surprise that when people read that their friend sided against them, they felt less close to the friend, that it damaged their friendship, and they would be less likely to support their friend in the future.

More surprising is the neutral condition.

People felt just as negatively toward a friend who remained neutral as toward a friend who sided against them.

This suggests people don’t think of their neutral friends as simply being neutral, but rather siding against them.

The researchers then carried out a variation of this experiment.

In the new study, participants were told that their friend had gotten into an argument with an acquaintance. The acquaintance then asked the participant, “Who’s being the jerk?”

81% of the participants decided to remain neutral.

In other words, when people are in a conflict with an acquaintance, they think a friend who chooses to be neutral is as bad as a friend who sides against them.

But most people themselves choose to be neutral when their friend is in a conflict with an acquaintance.

But to show that people really do have special expectations of friends compared to strangers, researchers designed a variation of the first study.

This time, participants were told they were in a bar with two acquaintances and got into an argument with one of them.

People felt negatively toward an acquaintance who sided against them. But they did not feel negatively toward an acquaintance who remained neutral.

Finally, researchers had participants imagine they were in a bar with two close friends. Participants then were told they’d gotten into an argument with one friend.

When the other friend was asked, “Who’s being the jerk?” They then either sided with the participants, remained neutral, or sided with the other friend.

This time, participants did not respond negatively when a close friend remained neutral between the disputants. Relationships matter for how we interpret neutrality.

This suggests the ultimate explanation of friendship, then, is for us to have allies. In fact, the researchers cite the "alliance model of friendship."

From the paper:

"The alliance model of friendship (DeScioli & Kurzban, 2009a) holds that friendships function as alliances, analogous to international alliances that oblige nations to support each other in conflicts. Thus, people value most those friends who they can count on to support them over an opponent in a conflict. From this perspective, a friend who remains neutral in a conflict is like a nation that abandons its ally, and so neutrality damages and weakens the relationship."


"For example, in international politics, if the U.S. remained neutral in a conflict between France and the U.K., France wouldn't be too offended due to the close alliance between the U.S. and U.K., but if the U.S. was neutral between France and Russia, France would learn that the U.S.'s loyalties are much weaker than previously supposed."

Neutrality is only perceived as negative when a friend is neutral against a stranger. We don't mind if a friend is neutral if we're in a fight with another friend.

And we don't mind if a stranger is neutral when we're in a fight with another stranger. But if our friends are neutral when we're in a fight with a stranger, we think of their neutrality as a hostile act.

We hold our friends to different standards. For friends, we think whoever is not with us is against us when we’re in a conflict with an outsider.

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