Tag Archives: friendship

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.

Vampire bats make friends in captivity — and keep them after release

A new study looking into social bonding dynamics for vampire bats reports that friendships they make in captivity are likely to continue after the animals are released back into the wild.

A tagged Desmodus rotundus bat in the wild.
Image credits Sherri ad Brock Fenton.

While primates are the most iconic group of animals when it comes to social dynamics and friendships, the new study suggests that vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus) also form cooperative relationships reminiscent of friendship. The findings also show that social interactions among vampire bats observed in the lab aren’t just a product of them being kept in captivity.

Life’s bat-er with friends

“The social relationships in vampire bats that we have been observing in captivity are pretty robust to changes in the social and physical environment–even when our captive groups consist of a fairly random sample of bats from a wild colony,” said Simon Ripperger of the Museum für Naturkunde, Leibniz-Institute for Evolution and Biodiversity Science in Berlin, the study’s lead author.

“When we released these bats back into their wild colony, they chose to associate with the same individuals that were their cooperation partners during their time in captivity.”

Together with co-lead author Gerald Carter of The Ohio State University, who has been studying vampire bat social relationships in captivity since 2010, Ripperger wanted to see if relationships the bats established in captivity would survive after release to the wild. The idea, boiled down, was to see if the partnerships these bats would form in the lab were ‘genuine’ or simply the best available at the time (in which case they would break down as the bats started to associate with other individuals).

All in all, the team reports, social interactions in the lab aren’t just an artifact of captivity. Not all relationships formed in captivity survived after release, the team reports. Similar to the human experience, however, cooperative relationships among vampire bats appear to result from a combination of social preferences together with external environment influences or circumstances, the team explains.

For the study, the team needed to record social interactions and networks among wild bats at much better resolutions than before. So, they enlisted the help of colleagues in electrical engineering and computer sciences to develop novel proximity sensors. Lighter than a penny, the new sensors could be carried by the bats without too much hassle and allowed the team to monitor entire social groups with updates a few seconds apart. The final step was to incorporate these observations with data on bat relationships from the lab.

The data showed that reciprocal grooming and food sharing among female bats in captivity (data recorded over 22 months) was a good predictor of whom these females would later interact with in the wild. The researchers report that the findings are consistent with the idea that both partner fidelity and partner switching play a role in regulating the bats’ relationships. In the future, the team wants to gauge how individual differences among bats influence these types of cooperation relationships. They also plan to look into social foraging and whether bats that cooperate within their day roost also go hunting together at night.

“Our finding adds to a growing body of evidence that vampire bats form social bonds that are similar to the friendships we see in some primates,” Carter said. “Studying animal relationships can be a source of inspiration and insight for understanding the stability of human friendships.”

The paper “Vampire bats that cooperate in the lab maintain their social networks in the wild” has been published in the journal Current Biology.

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.

Portrait Gallery.

Our brains resemble those of our friends, new research shows

Show these researchers your brain and they’ll tell you who your friends are.

Portrait Gallery.

Image credits Gerd Altmann.

A team of psychologists from the Dartmouth College reports that friends have similar neural responses to stimuli, and that these similarities can be used to predict friendships between people. The study is the first of its kind to look at similarities in neural activity patterns of people within real-world social networks.

Quantifying friendship

The researchers worked with roughly 280 college graduate students, who were first asked to self-report their social ties. Based on these, the team estimated the social distance between individual pairs — i.e. how close the relationship between two students was. Forty-two participants were then selected for the second step of the trial. They were asked to watch a range of videos while their neural activity was recorded with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner.

To get a good feel of how each participant’s brain perceives the world, the team needed to elicit as many responses from the participants’ brains as possible. So the videos used in this step spanned a wide range of topics and genres, including politics, science, music shows, and comedy. Each participant received the same instructions and watched the same videos in the same order, to minimize variables and keep the results as consistent as possible.

Armed with these recordings, the researchers then set out to compare the neural responses across pairs of students. What they wanted to determine was if pairs of students who considered themselves friends had more similar patterns of brain activity than pairs further apart in the social network (friends-of-friends and so on).

The researchers found that friends had the most similar neural activity patterns, followed by friends-of-friends. In turn, the latter had more similar neural activity than people three degrees removed (friends-of-friends-of-friends). Furthermore, researchers report that fMRI response similarities could be used to predict both friendship and its closeness in a pair.

“Neural responses to dynamic, naturalistic stimuli, like videos, can give us a window into people’s unconstrained, spontaneous thought processes as they unfold,” says lead author Carolyn Parkinson, a postdoc at Dartmouth at the time of the study.

“Our results suggest that friends process the world around them in exceptionally similar ways.”

Birds of a feather

The similarities in neural responses manifested across different brain regions involved in emotional processing, attention, and high-level reasoning. Even after researchers controlled for variables such as handedness, age, gender, ethnicity, or nationality, neural activity among friends still showed a pronounced similarity.

Such results flesh out our understanding of the human brain and the way it functions. The researchers say the idea for their study came from previous work which found that when you see someone, your brain immediately assesses how important or influential he or she is, and their position in your social network. It’s a process that betrays a very deep tuning for social processes in the brain.

They were led to narrow their investigation on the link between brain patterns and our choices of friends by findings that “individuals tend to befriend others who are similar to them in terms of a range of physical attributes,” they note. A similarity that seems to go all the way down to our genome.

“We are a social species and live our lives connected to everybody else. If we want to understand how the human brain works, then we need to understand how brains work in combination — how minds shape each other,” explains senior author Thalia Wheatley.

In the future, the scientists plan to explore if we naturally gravitate toward people who see the world the same way we do, if we become more similar after befriending (as we share common experiences), or if both dynamics work on reinforcing each other.

But whether our brains shape friendships or they shape our brains, at the end of the day, we can all agree that our lives are that much better because of our friends.

The paper “Similar neural responses predict friendship” has been published in the journal Nature.

Credit: Pixabay, sipa.

The eye of the friend zone: relationship goals influence how each person looks at potential friends or mates

Credit: Pixabay, sipa.

Credit: Pixabay / sipa.

The ancient Greeks asserted that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A new study lends even more credence to this rather overused metaphor after a team at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, found significant differences in how each person judges the physical attributes of strangers. The team found that relationship goals had a strong influence on whether a particular person was considered attractive as a potential mate or appealing as a conceivable friend.

More than looks

Angela Bahns, assistant professor of psychology at Wellesley, recruited 105 heterosexual undergrads that had to look at some pictures of strangers then express their level of interest in either becoming friends or dating that person.

While they were involved in this experiment, each participant was fitted with eye-tracking technology that captured information like what features the eyes were focused on and for how long.

When evaluating a potential mate, both men and women had their gaze linger on the chest and head of the opposite-sex for far longer and more often compared to when they were assessing a potential friendship. However, women who looked at the head longer and more often were particularly interested in friendship.

But when platonic rather than sexual judgments had to be made, the participants cast their sight on the legs or feet more often. Overall, however, these bodily features were the least observed regions overall. And looking at the center of the body—legs, waist, hips, or chest—indicated greater interest in both romance and friendship.

Not surprisingly, single women looked at a potential romantic partner for longer than the female participants already in a relationship, as reported in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

“However, men generally looked most at the chest and waist-hip region, regardless of whether they were judging friendship or dating potential,” said Bahns, “while women looked most at the chest and head. And men were more likely to look at a person’s legs.”

The tangled mix of results suggests that one person’s judgment of a potential friend or romantic partner can differ widely. One person’s romantic prospect is friend-zoned by another, and vice-versa. It follows, according to Bahns, that there are not only some fixed sets of characteristics that make a person desirable but also intrinsic factors like the beholder’s relationship goals. “People scan others for cues differently, depending on what they’re seeking regarding the role others may play in their lives,” she said.

This study enriches the current literature on the psychology of attraction which with each passing day seems to depend more and more on a person’s values, upbringing, and goals. In other words, it’s not just the good looks though this certainly counts. Dr. Tamsin Saxton from the University of St. Andrews studied the influence of familiarity found girls that went to an all-girls school were more attracted to feminine-looking faces. Researchers elsewhere also found that men and women in relationships tend to resemble their in-laws; in other words, people tend to pick spouses that look like mom or dad.  A survey at the University of Iowa found that men are likely to marry women who reached the same level of education as their moms and made similar career choices.

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.


Half of your friends don’t actually feel the same way, probably

How many friends do you think you have? A hundred, twenty… two? Chances have it, you actually have only half as many ‘real’ friends as you think. At least, those who look to you as a friend too, say researchers at MIT’s Media Lab.


Credit: NBC

The authors surveyed 84 undergrads from the same class with a simple questionnaire. Each participant had to rate every other person in the class from 1 to 5, where 1 is “I do not know this person” and 5 is “One of my best friends”. If the participant rated a person with 3, that qualified as friendship.

Each participant also had to guess how other participants would rate them.

In total,  1,353 cases of friendships or instances where a person was rated with at least 3 on the scale were recorded. In 94 percent of these instances, the participant guessed the other person felt the same. In reality, just 53 percent of these friendships were reciprocal.

“In contrast to the high expectations of reciprocity among the participants, we find that almost half of the friendships are actually non-reciprocal. We show this by constructing a directional friendship network based on explicit friendship nominations (i.e., closeness scores >2). In this network, we consider a friendship tie to be “reciprocal” when both participants identify each other as friends. Alternatively, the tie is “unilateral” when only one of the participants identifies the other as a friend. The final directed friendship network consists of 84 nodes (i.e., participants) and 775 edges (i.e., explicit friendships). Examining the relationship between the reported friendship scores on the two sides of these edges reveals a relatively weak correlation (r = 0.36, p = 0). Furthermore, only half (i.e., 53%) of these edges are indeed reciprocal (413 out of 775),” the researchers write in  the journal PLoS One.

Now, the study itself boasts some obvious limitations starting from the sampling size, to the fact that we’re talking about freaking undergraduates whose friendships can be made or broken at a whim. However, these results were consistent with other surveys on friendship networks some which included as many as 3,160 participants.

“We find this result to be consistent across many self-reported friendship networks that we have analyzed: only 45% (315 out of 698) of friendships are reciprocal in the Friends and Family dataset, 34% (28 out of 82) in the Reality Mining dataset, 35% (555 out of 1596) in the Social Evolution dataset, 49% (102 out of 208) in the Strongest Ties dataset, and 53% (1683 out of 3160) in the Personality Survey. The first three surveys were collected at an American university, the fourth at a European university, and the latter at a Middle Eastern university”

“These findings suggest a profound inability of people to perceive friendship reciprocity, perhaps because the possibility of non-reciprocal friendship challenges one’s self-image,” the study authors conclude.

This might just be the saddest study in social psychology I’ve read all year, or is it? Knowing who your real friends are is important and will save you a lot of trouble. If this study reflects reality, then most of us judge friendships poorly, so maybe now’s a good time to assess who you can count on.


Lion, Tiger and Bear share impressing friendship


They’ve known each other basically all their lives, but the early days weren’t happy at all. Found during a police raid at the home of a drug lord, Leo, Shere Khan and Baloo tied an extremely unusual bond.

They now live their peaceful lives together in the habitat built specifically for them at Noah’s Ark rescue center in Locust Grove, Ga., where they can even go out for a swim in the creek near their… house.

“To our knowledge, this is the only place where you’ll find this combination of animals together, they are our BLT, (bear, lion and tiger),” said Diane Smith, assistant director of the zoo at Noah’s Ark.

“It is wonderful and magical to see a giant American black bear put his arm around a Bengal tiger and then to see the tiger nuzzle up to the bear like a domestic cat. When Leo wakes up, the three of them mess around for most of the day before they settle down to some food.”