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Why Are We Attracted to Our Friends?

New research reveals why we fall for friends (and fail to "unfriend" exes).

Miguel Angel/Flickr
Source: Miguel Angel/Flickr

The friends in the '90s sitcom Friends were often anything but. I lost track of how many times Ross and Rachel got together and broke up, only to hop back into the sack by the time the season finale rolled around. Then Chandler and Monica got in on the act, and didn’t Joey and Rachel knock boots for a while too? I forget. But it’s safe to say that when Phoebe finally married Ant-Man, we were all surprised. “But you’ve not been friends with him for 10 years…”

Three new scientific papers reveal why even those of us who eschew sweater vests and don’t live in massive rent-controlled Manhattan apartments are sometimes prone to fall for our friends, and explain why so many of us try to remain friends with an ex.

Is It a Man Thing?

Let’s try out a little thought experiment. Think of a specific friend who identifies as a gender you find attractive.

Do you have someone in mind? OK. Now rate how attracted you are to that friend on a scale of 1-9. One means “not at all attracted,” five means “moderately attracted," and nine means “extremely attracted."

Research by April Bleske-Rechek, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, shows that women rate their attraction to their male friend at an average of around four; men rate their attraction to their female friend one point higher, at around five.

Men appear to see their opposite-sex friends as possible romantic partners somewhat more than women do.

Or do they? Bleske-Rechek wondered if men and women differed in their ratings because of the type of friend they were imagining. Perhaps when you ask a woman to think of a male friend, she does just that. Men, on the other hand, might find their thoughts turning to a female acquaintance they wish was more than a friend.

In a new follow-up study, Bleske-Rechek had two research assistants approach male-female pairs of adults in a university student union. The research assistants invited the pairs to take part in a psychology experiment. Those who agreed were asked to stand apart from one another and then given a survey to complete.

The survey included questions about each volunteer’s attraction to the other person in their pair. The volunteers also reported if they and their partner were in a relationship, were just friends, or knew each other in some other capacity.

Bleske-Rechek examined the data for the pairs in which both members stated that they were friends. She found that men rated the attractiveness of their friend at around four, and women rated the attractiveness of their friend at around 3.5: a difference revealed by statistical analysis to be non-significant. In other words, men appear to be no more or less attracted to their opposite-sex friends than women are.

This suggested that Bleske-Rechek’s theory could be correct: Perhaps when men are asked to think of a female friend, they don’t think of a woman they hang out with at the student union but instead of the most attractive woman they know, even if she barely qualifies as a friend.

To find out for sure if she was right, Bleske-Rechek had around 300 young men and women think of an opposite-sex friend. Then she asked those same volunteers which of two definitions fit their friend best: “A person of the opposite sex who is a friend” or “A person of the opposite sex who I am physically attracted to.” Volunteers were free to select both definitions if they wished.

The researchers found that 42% of men, but 66% of women, chose “a friend of the opposite sex." Another 42% of men, but only 29% of women, chose “A person of the opposite sex who I am physically attracted to." As much as 17% of men, but only 5% of women, thought both definitions described their friend.

It seems Bleske-Rechek was correct: Men may be more attracted to their opposite-sex friends than women are, but only when men are given a free choice of which friend to consider. Given a free choice, the first friend a man thinks of will be someone he finds alluring. Women are more likely to think of someone they have relegated to the “friend-zone."

Escape From the Friend-Zone

Perhaps you’re lucky enough not to have heard of the friend-zone. It’s the limbo to which attractive people send us when they decide that we are definitely not partner-material. Entering the friend-zone is like passing the event horizon of a black hole: just as light cannot escape a black hole, a friend cannot escape the friend-zone.

Anyway, that’s the lay theory. But what does the research say? If you are attracted to a friend whom you suspect has placed you firmly in the friend-zone, can you convince that friend to reconsider your suitability as a relationship partner?

That’s what Edward Lemay and Noah Wolf of the University of Maryland set out to discover.

For their first experiment, the scientists rounded up 127 pairs of platonic male-female friends. Each of these volunteers completed a series of questionnaires about their attraction to their friend, how much they felt their friend reciprocated their desire, and whether they had ever tried to initiate a romantic relationship with their friend.

Lemay and Wolf found that the attraction between friends was detected by those friends. In other words, we can tell with a good degree of accuracy if our friend is attracted to us. Lemay and Wolf also found that those who were attracted to a friend also thought that their friend reciprocated their desire: We project our feelings onto our friends, assuming that if we like them, they must like us too. This projection effect was stronger than the accuracy effect. In short, we’re delusional.

But this delusion could be useful. If we kid ourselves into believing that our friends are attracted to us as much as we are attracted to them, we are more likely to take a chance on initiating a romantic relationship with them. A chance we may not have taken if we were more accurate in our perceptions. If we knew that our friends didn't dig us the way we dug them, then we would remain confined to the friend-zone forever.

Now, you may have spotted a flaw in this plan. If you hit on a friend who likes you less than you like them, surely they will knock you back. What’s to gain from self-delusional overconfidence?

Lemay and Wolf carried out a second experiment, this time following 102 pairs of male-female friends over the course of a month. This allowed them to follow how friends’ perceptions of one another developed over time. They found that volunteers whose friend attempted to initiate a relationship with them came to desire that friend more over time.

As Lemay and Wolf put it:

Initially biased perceptions appeared to motivate behavior that resulted in targets [i.e. the desired friend] confirming those perceptions, the hallmark of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So there you go: With concerted effort, you can claw your way out of the friend-zone. If you fancy your friend and let them know it, your desire could inflame theirs and lead to a long and fulfilling relationship.

Staying Friends With an Ex

Or your relationship could crash and burn. In which case, you may hear your erstwhile partner suggest, “Let’s just be friends."

But should you stay friends with an ex? And would you want to?

Justin Mogilski and Lisa Welling of the Oakland State University in Michigan decided to investigate the motivations of male-female couples to maintain their friendship after the spark has gone from their romantic relationship.

First, they asked 348 volunteers to brainstorm reasons why a person might want to remain friends with a partner after a split. The volunteers came up with a sizable list of 153 unique and specific justifications for maintaining a friendship with an ex.

Next, Mogilski and Welling recruited another 513 men and women who had experienced at least one breakup. These volunteers rated the importance of each of the 153 reasons and completed a barrage of personality questionnaires.

Many of the reasons tended to cluster together: If a person thought one reason was important, there was a high chance they would find another, similar reason equally important. This allowed the researchers to classify the reasons into sets based around a theme.

One set of reasons seemed to be all about the reliability or sentimental value of the ex: volunteers who said they would maintain a friendship with a partner because they were a great listener, also said that they valued their ex’s advice, found them dependable, or that it felt normal to be around them.

Another set of reasons was pragmatic: the ex had a lot of money, would buy their former partner food or gifts, had attractive friends or useful social connections, or were a fallback plan.

A third set of reasons were about continued romantic attraction: Participants might still have feelings for their ex, hate the idea of their ex being with someone else, or want to make their ex’s future partners uncomfortable. An opposite set of reasons was also evident: some participants wanted to be friends with an ex because they no longer found them attractive (these reasons are presumably about why one might want to put an end to the sexual component of a relationship with a partner who is otherwise good company).

Some volunteers had social ties to their ex that were difficult to break: they shared a child, they worked in the same office, or they supported each other through illness.

Others thought it was most important to maintain their social relationships: to prevent awkwardness among a shared friendship group or to stay on good terms with shared friends.

And, of course, there were those who focused on perhaps the most obvious reason for maintaining a relationship with an ex: to keep having sex with them.

Of these seven sets of reasons, the most important was the first: reliability or sentimental value of the partner. Most people wanted to stay friends with an ex because they liked them, and liked being around them. Pragmatic reasons were the lowest-rated set, although men rated pragmatic reasons as more important than women did (perhaps predictably, men also thought sexual access was a more valid reason).

As for personality, those who scored high on antagonism and extroversion, or low on honesty and humility, cited pragmatic reasons and sexual access reasons as more important for maintaining a relationship with an ex.

So, if your ex likes to argue, is loud and obnoxious, dishonest, and lacking in humility you should answer “no” when they ask “can we stay friends?” But you probably knew that: after all, you already dumped the loser.

For an audio version of this story, see the 26 July 2016 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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