Tag Archives: friends

Having friends who are friends with each other is the way to go, according to new research

Having friends is always nice, but not all of them are made equal. A new study looks at the traits that make us feel we can rely on our friends for emotional support.

Image via Pixabay.

Life is hard enough as it is, there’s really no point in going at it alone and making it even harder. But how much we feel we can rely on our friends for support isn’t completely in our control — how close our friends are with one another matters a lot, according to new research.

The more the merrier

“The more cohesive, the more dense [a friend] network you have, the more you feel you can rely on them for support,” said David Lee, who led the study as a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at The Ohio State University.

People perceive their social network — be it friends or family — as being more supportive when its members knew and had close relationships with each other, rather than those with unlinked relationships, the team explains.

The findings are based on two studies carried out online. The first asked 339 people to list eight people that they asked for support over the last six months, and rate how well they rose to the occasion on a scale of 1 to 7. Most participants listed friends or family members, but some people also named co-workers, romantic partners, classmates, or roommates. Finally, they were also asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 7, how close each possible pair of the eight people they listed were to each other (from “they don’t know each other” to “extremely close”).

From this data, the team calculated how ‘dense’ each participant’s social network was. Higher density meant their friends were more interconnected and closer to each other.

All in all, denser networks were associated with participants saying they would be able to receive more support from them.

“We found that our support networks are more than the sum of their parts,” said Bayer.

“People who feel they have more social support in their lives may be focusing more on the collective support they feel from being part of a strong, cohesive group. It’s having a real crew, as opposed to just having a set of friends.”

The second study involved 240 people and tried to determine whether the density of an individual’s social circle mattered in a specific scenario where they require help. Participants were asked to list two groups of four people — one where the members weren’t close to each other, and one where they were.

Then, each participant was asked to imagine that their house had been broken in and that they require help or emotional support. Half of them had to go to the connected group and half to the one with members who weren’t close to each other, and asked to estimate how much support they would likely receive.

Unsurprisingly, those who imagined going to the tight-knit group felt they would fare much better. Later surveys revealed that people tend to think of such groups as single entities, and participants were more likely to identify with the group more (they were perceived as being a larger part of their own identities). Both of these factors, the authors explain, were related to perceiving more support.

“You can have two friends who are both very supportive of you, but if they are both friends with each other, that makes you feel even more supported,” Stahl said.

“Focus on those friends who are connected to each other,” Bayer said. “That’s where we really perceive the most support.”

The paper “Social Resources as Cognitive Structures: Thinking about a Dense Support Network Increases Perceived Support” has been published in the journal Social Psychology Quarterly.

Our social ties suffered under the pandemic, but they’ll heal rapidly once we’re free to socialize

The pandemic has certainly placed most of our friendships under strain. But take heart: a new study says this negative impact is likely to be short-lived.

Image via Pixabay.

A meta analysis published by Robin Ian MacDonald Dunbar, a psychologist at the University of Oxford, reports that the pandemic’s effect on friendships won’t be permanent — in fact, it’s likely not even going to last for too long. Social bonds such as those between family and friends are the cornerstone of human life, and maintaining their health should be one of our key concerns during such trying times.

A plague on friendships

The pandemic has upset our lives more than probably any other event in recent memory. It caused dramatic, wide-reaching changes to how we do our jobs, how we relax, how we socialize, and how we spend our money. We’re forced to face how fragile our societies actually are, and how easily a life can be snuffed out by fate.

This all led to a sharp rise in loneliness, anxiety, and civil disobedience. Dunbar wanted to see how our social networks fared under these conditions, and to estimate how they will evolve in the future to suit the current conditions. Towards this end, he analyzed available literature on this topic, looking in particular for ones dealing with unusual or completely novel situations.

Among the key findings, Dunbar notes that people actually have a smaller social network than we would assume, with the average figure being 150 people. How closely bonded we are to each individual is also variable, and hinges mostly on factors such as how much time was invested in the relationship, and how much trust we can place in the other person.

One important insight from this paper is that spending time apart from family doesn’t seem to make our bonds with them less powerful. Spending time apart from friends, however, does — some of the studies Dunbar cites show that it takes as little as three months without meeting in-person to weaken a bond of friendship. That’s not a heartening prospect, but Dunbar also found that these bonds of friendship can be restored quickly once people are able to socialize again.

So what is waiting for us at the end of the tunnel (apart from a cheap and effective vaccine)? Well, Dunbar believes that people will be rather awkward around each other for a short time after restrictions are lifted. However, we can definitely reconnect if we put in a little effort, as our relationships haven’t been severed, merely frayed.

Another side-effect of the pandemic is that as our old social ties may fall in the background, people are looking for and entering new social circles that are more available during these trying times. Some if not most of these will lead to new, long-lasting friendships, he adds.

The paper “Structure and function in human and primate social networks: implications for diffusion, network stability, and health” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences.

Life satisfaction hinges not on what you do — but who you do it with

If it’s happiness you’re after, you’ll need a team.


Image via Pixabay.

New research from the University of Leipzig, Germany, suggests that well-being strategies involving other people are more satisfying than nonsocial pursuits. So if you want to boost your life satisfaction, get yourself some people to share it with.

Group effort

“Our research showed that people who came up with ‘well-being’ strategies that involved other people were more satisfied with their lives one year later — even after taking into account that they were marginally happier to begin with,” says lead author and psychological scientist Julia Rohrer.

“In contrast, people who came up with strategies that did not explicitly involve others remained, on average, as satisfied as they were.”

The team examined a subset of data recorded during 2014 for the German Socio-Economic Panel Study, which is considered to be a nationally-representative survey of adults in Germany. The participants in this sample reported how satisfied they felt with their lives on a scale from 0 (completely dissatisfied) to 10 (completely satisfied). They also reported how satisfied they thought they’d be in 5-years’ time and described the strategies they could employ to maintain life satisfaction in the future.

One year later, the participants again rated their current level of life satisfaction.

Out of the 1,178 participants in the sample, 596 made a general statement such as “there is not much I could change” or one that didn’t require individual action, such as “a political shift would improve my life.” The rest, 582 participants, reported a specific strategy. There were no substantial differences in the life satisfaction of these two groups over time, the team notes.

The researchers further broke down this last group by the focus of the strategies they described: 184 people mentioned an approach centered around some form of social engagement and interaction — “helping others,” “spend more time with family,” “spend more time with friends”, and so on — while 398 described a nonsocial strategy — such as “stop smoking” or “pick up sports”.

Based on the answers each participant provided in the follow-up poll, the team says that those who engaged in a social strategy showed increased life satisfaction — while those who embarked on nonsocial strategies showed a relatively constant level of life satisfaction. Data reflecting how much time each participant invested in various activities that involved socializing with friends, family, or neighbors helps explain this boost in life satisfaction, the team adds.

Overall, the research suggests that spending more time with others, especially others we care about, could be an important avenue to increased well-being. Rohrer says that she plans to follow-up on the findings with experimental and longitudinal studies over long durations to determine exactly why socially-focused strategies seem to improve satisfaction — while nonsocial ones do not.

“Many people are interested in becoming happier, but there is a lack of evidence regarding the long term effects of pursuing happiness through various types of activities,” she says. “After all, there’s no guarantee that trying to become happier doesn’t make you more miserable in the end.”

“I think our study partly fills that gap in the literature, although more research with a longitudinal perspective is certainly needed.”

The paper “Successfully Striving for Happiness: Socially Engaged Pursuits Predict Increases in Life Satisfaction” has been published in the journal Psychological Science.


Australian wrens recognize friends from other species and work together with them

Birds of different feathers also flock together, a team of US researchers reveals. They showed that two species of Australian fairy-wrens can recognize individuals from other species and form long-lasting partnerships with them.


A Superb Fairy-Wren male.
Image credits benjamint444 / Wikimedia.

Birds, as a group, are pretty big on cooperation. Some build their nests close to those of larger, more aggressive species in an effort to discourage predators. Alternatively, members of several species will form flocks — either to forage or for defense — in alliances that can last for years. However, these interactions aren’t cemented by individuals — they take place between species, and any bird from these will do.

A new study, published by scientists from the University of Chicago and the University of Nebraska, shows that two bird species can, in fact, form partnerships based on the individuals in question. Members of the two different species of Australian fairy-wrens (family Maluridae) will recognize specific individuals from the other species and form long-term partnerships to forage and defend the group’s land.


“Finding that these two species associate was not surprising, as mixed species flocks of birds are observed all over the world,” said Allison Johnson, PhD, and the paper first author.

“But when we realized they were sharing territories with specific individuals and responding aggressively only to unknown individuals, we knew this was really unique. It completely changed our research and we knew we had to investigate it.”

Variegated fairy-wrens (M. lamberti) and splendid fairy-wrens (M. cyaneus) are native to Australia. Both species feed on insects, live in large family groups and have their mating season at the same time of year. The birds don’t migrate, living all their life in eucalyptus scrublands.

Their territories often overlap but, instead of bickering, these bright-blue birds cooperate — birdwatchers often see them traveling and foraging together. Individuals from both species will also work together to protect their territory from outsiders, be they variegated or splendid fairy-wrens. Curious to know how the birds distinguish friend from foe, the team studied these species at the Brookfield Conservation Park, South Australia, from 2012 to 2015.

Variegated Fairy-Wren.

A Variegated Fairy-Wren male.
Image credits James Niland / Flickr.

One of the first hypotheses they checked was whether — like other species of songbirds — the fairy-wrens recognized familiar individuals based on their unique song patterns. And, surprisingly, when the team played a recording of either species, the other would respond, flying to investigate what the ruckus was all about. Building on this observation, the team then stalked both species just before dawn and captured clear recordings of their specific songs. Afterward, they played these recordings from a speaker in another group’s territory — meant to simulate an intrusion. The objective was to see how territory owners reacted to the songs of familiar and unfamiliar members of the other species.

The speaker was placed roughly 30 meters away from a subject fairy-wren. The team played four different recordings: a fairy-wren that occupied the same territory (a co-resident or “friendly” bird), a fairy-wren from an adjacent territory (a neighbor), a fairy-wren from an area five or more territories away (an unknown bird), and a red-capped robin, a common species that doesn’t pose a threat to the fairy-wrens (as a control group).

According to the team, both species could easily recognize their friends’ songs despite being different species. The songs of neighbors or unknown members of the different species elicited a strong response from socially-dominant males — more aggressive than the ones elicited by birds sharing the territory, such as the red-capped robins. However, the songs of friendly birds didn’t elicit any kind of response, suggesting they weren’t considered threats.

“Splendid and variegated fairy-wrens are so similar in their habitat preferences and behavior, we would expect them to act as competitors. Instead, we’ve found stable, positive relationships between individuals of the two species,” said Christina Masco, PhD and paper co-author.

The team believes that these interspecies partnerships allow the fairy-wrens to better defend their nests and territories from threats — think of it like a birds-down-under NATO. Another potential benefit the team identified is that variegated fairy-wrens spent more time foraging, were less vigilant, and had more success raising their young when collaborating with the splendid fairy-wrens. However, the latter didn’t show any change in behavior when associating with the other species.

The paper “Song recognition and heterospecific associations between 2 fairy-wren species (Maluridae)” has been published in the journal Behavioral Ecology.

Credit: Pixabay.

It takes about 200 hours with someone to turn them into a best friend, new study shows

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

Humans long to bond with their peers — a fundamental urge, which may be evolutionarily rooted. We are often in the company of other people, be it at school, work, or at home; if we’re not, it can become a problem. A lack of human contact in one’s life can have devastating effects on health, with one study finding loneliness is deadliner than obesity. Conversely, a large social network and a socially engaging life with members of that network are factors that predict overall health and subjective well‐being.

Jeffrey Hall, a professor of communications studies at the University of Kansas, is the author of the Communicate Bond Belong (CBB) theory, which proposes “that a social interaction operates within a homeostatic system, developed from internal pressures to satiate a need to belong, shaped by competing desires to invest and conserve social energy, and adaptable to new social circumstances and technological affordances.” To satisfy this need, people invest time and energy into building bonds. Now, in the new research, Hall and colleagues quantified this temporal dimension, essentially learning how much time it takes, on average, for people’s relationships to evolve.

A time for friendship

In one study, the researchers interviewed 355 adults who had relocated to a new city within the previous six months. This was a great demographic, since the participants were forced by circumstances to build a new social circle, essentially resetting their social setting. Each participant was asked to identify new persons that they had met, who weren’t family members, romantic interests, or people they had previously met. The participants specified where they met the new person and how much time they spent together, on average, in a typical week. Each new person introduced to a social circle was rated on a scale from acquaintance to best friend.

A second study included 112 University of Kansas freshmen — students who were exposed to many opportunities to meet new people and possibly befriend them. The students were asked to name two new acquaintances, and then report back to the researchers three times over the course of nine weeks of school how these relationships had changed.

For both studies, the researchers focused on identified so-called cut-off points, where there was a 50% likelihood that a relationship switched from acquaintance to casual, from casual to friend, or from friend to close friend. In terms of time, it took 50 hours of interaction to move from acquaintance to casual friend, 90 hours from casual friend to friend, and more than 200 hours for a person to fall in the ‘best friend’ frame. Acquaintances that had never moved up the social circle usually had spent fewer than 30 hours together.

The study suggests that time spent together with other people is a highly important metric to establishing meaningful connections. People who move to a new city for study or work and struggle making new friends might want to keep these findings in mind — it shouldn’t feel like work making friends, but it sure does take time.

The researchers also found that spending time together doesn’t automatically turn two people into friends — go figure. Some of the participants reported spending hundreds of hours with colleagues which were still classed as acquaintances at the end of the study. This usually happened when acquaintances didn’t spend leisure time together (outside of school or work).

Hall says that having friends isn’t just a life pleasure, it’s also a necessity. Over the years, much research has shown that friends influence your happiness and habits — whether you’ll smoke or drink, work out, stay thin or become obese. The findings show that making friends is an investment that requires time and a bit of strategy (asking acquaintances to join you in leisure activities outside a formal environment). If you’re the kind of person that struggles to make friends, besides social skills, you might want to evaluate how much free time you set aside every week for seeing friends and building relationships with the new people you’ve met.

The findings appeared in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

Only about half your friends actually consider you a friend

A recent study has determined that only about half of the people you count among your friends feel the same way about you. The findings suggest that on one hand, social media is promoting an unsustainable number of friends as being the norm. On the other hand, we each seem to have a different definition of what friendship is and, thus, who our friends are.

Image via pexels

We tend to believe that the people whom we count among our friends feel the same about us — it takes two, after all. But a recent MIT study found that this may not be the case at all.

In fact, only about 50% of perceived friendships are actually mutual. Researchers analyzed friendship ties in 84 subjects aged 23 to 84 taking part in a business management class. The participants were asked to rank each other person in the class by how close they felt to them. The scale went from 0 to 5, with 0 marked as “I do not know this person,” 3 symbolizing a “Friend,” and 5 being “One of my best friends.”

The team found a huge difference between the participants’ expectation and reality — while 94 percent of the subjects expected those they consider friends to feel the same way about them, only 53 percent actually reported them as friends, too.

The results of the study are, of course, limited in value on their own because of the tiny sample size. But, as Kate Murphy told the The New York Times, the team’s results line up consistently with previous studies on friendship done in the last decade. These found reciprocity rates between 34 to 53 percent, from a pool of over 92,000 subjects.

This gap between the number of perceived and reciprocated friendships could stem from the fact that we can’t clearly define what friendship is. Alex Pentland, a computational social science researcher and member of the MIT team behind the study, thinks that this difficulty arises because of our efforts to maintain a good self-image — a “We like them so they must like us” mentality. But that’s not how friends work.

“Ask people to define friendship – even researchers like Mr Pentland who study it – and you’ll get an uncomfortable silence followed by ‘er’ or ‘um,'” says Murphy.

Sadly, friends are becoming more of an investment or an achievement today. We try to make friends with people who might be able to help us advance in our careers or go to nice places and so forth, or we just “accept” friend number 2,355 on Facebook.

“Treating friends like investments or commodities is anathema to the whole idea of friendship,” said Ronald Sharp, professor of English at Vassar College, who teaches a course on the literature of friendship.

“It’s not about what someone can do for you, it’s who and what the two of you become in each other’s presence.”

Sharp believes that since the digital revolution, we’re spending more time tweeting or messaging our friends than actually hanging out with them, further altering our idea of what a healthy friendship looks like.

“People are so eager to maximise efficiency of relationships that they have lost touch with what it is to be a friend,” he says.

But hey, it’s not all bad news. If you cut your friend count down by half and end up with five true pals who really do love you back, you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be, says anthropologist Robin Dunbar. According to a recent study he led, while the average human can maintain 150 friendships with any degree of stability, we can only maintain 5 close friends at a time.

“People may say they have more than five but you can be pretty sure they are not high-quality friendships,” he told The Times.

So having a short list of friends on Facebook isn’t a sign that you’re doing something wrong. Quite the opposite, it may be the sign that you’re an expert at handling your social circle.

“We shouldn’t assume people with a high number of social ties are ‘influencers’,” Pentland writes for the Harvard Business Review. “Such people are no better, and often are worse than average people at exerting social influence. Our results suggest that this is because many of those ties either are not reciprocal or go in the wrong direction, and therefore won’t lead to effective persuasion.”

All those thousands of followers on Kardashian’s page? They don’t really amount to anything. If you’re looking for social change, go for small, close-knit groups of friends — they will support each other more than 40,000 Facebook friends ever will.

The paper, “Are You Your Friends’ Friend? Poor Perception of Friendship Ties Limits the Ability to Promote Behavioral Change” has been published online in the journal PLOS One.


Friends are family: study shows we share more genes with friends than strangers


Kyle Gass and Jack Black – the definition of friendship. Photo: eccentricbliss.com/

We often cherish our closest friends as if they were family. Well, this isn’t actually too far from the truth, considering a new study from the University of California, San Diego, and Yale University found friends who aren’t biologically related resemble each other genetically. In fact, on average friends are as “related” as fourth cousins or people who share great-great-great grandparents!

The genome-wide analysis looked at nearly 1.5 million markers of gene variation gathered from the Framingham Heart Study – the largest dataset of its kind that contains both that level of genetic detail and information on who is friends with whom. The data is mainly comprised of people of European ancestry, which could be viewed as a limitation, but in this particular case it’s actually a good thing is social relationship becomes the prime differentiating marker.

You just kissed your cousin!

The team, led by James Fowler, professor of medical genetics and political science at UC San Diego, and Nicholas Christakis, professor of sociology, evolutionary biology, and medicine at Yale, focused on 1,932 unique subjects and compared pairs of unrelated friends against pairs of unrelated strangers. The results, which were controlled for ancestry using the most conservative methods at the researchers’ disposal, go well beyond shared heritage. Namely, it seems on average friends share 1% of their genes, which might not sound like much, but when genetics are involved this is a very significant figure.

“Looking across the whole genome,” Fowler said, “we find that, on average, we are genetically similar to our friends. We have more DNA in common with the people we pick as friends than we do with strangers in the same population.”

What this tells us is that people generally tend to pick friends who are similar to our kin. This hypothesis serves to explain some riddles that have been puzzling evolutionary biologists for some time. It’s highly the case that sharing attributes with peers comes at an evolutionary advantage.

“The first mutant to speak needed someone else to speak to. The ability is useless if there’s no one who shares it. These types of traits in people are a kind of social network effect.”

Bigger, stronger, faster… together

The researchers also looked at a focus set of genes to see which genes were most shared by friends. The results show that friends are most similar in genes affecting the sense of smell, while on the opposite side of the spectrum genes pertaining to immunity were the least shared by friends. This means that friends are dissimilar in their capabilities of handling diseases.

The immunity dissimilarity supports some hypotheses that claim connecting with people with varied resistance to diseases reduces spreads of pathogens. Concerning smell, it’s not absurd to think people who share a similar sense of smell are more likely to come together. Think of the most common social places: bars, cafes, restaurants. Each place has its own distinct smell and it may be the case that we connect easier when there’s a common … smelly ground. Whatever’s the case, the researchers agree that there are several mechanisms, operating both in concert and in parallel, driving us to choose genetically similar friends.

“Friends will be friends
They’re running naked in the sand,
Friends holding hands
Will someday surely form a band,
Friends will be friends
They say that friends are friends
To the bitter end.
Long as there’s a record deal we’ll always be friends, yeah” ~~Tenacious D, “Friendship”

Perhaps the most interesting find, however, is that genes that were more similar between friends seem to be evolving faster than other gene. This may help explain why humans have been evolving at an accelerated pace for the past 30,000 years, as social networks and environments act like a driving evolutionary force.

“The paper also lends support to the view of human beings as ‘metagenomic,’” Christakis said, “not only with respect to the microbes within us but also to the people who surround us. It seems that our fitness depends not only on our own genetic constitutions, but also on the genetic constitutions of our friends.”

I have some personal dilemmas regarding the study methodology, however. It’s unclear from the study whether the subjects – friends and strangers compared against – have been filtered for proximity. It’s common for people to share a lot of genes in compact communities, like small towns where people rarely migrate. Also, not too long ago, though few people wish to admit, society was ubiquitously racist, chauvinistic and xenophobic. People married and befriended almost exclusively those of the same class, race, upbringing and religion. The specters may still linger, and this may explain why friends are so much like kin. More extensive case studies would convince me. Also, would this apply to online friends too? I would love to see that studied.

Results appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.