The Mechanics of Friendship
The term friendship when used in casual conversation may conjure an image of an individual, say, a best friend, or a small group of tightly knit people who are a person’s core group. Even though the definition of what constitutes a best friend varies widely in the social science literature, most individuals know if they have a best friend. That person is a confidant, the person we call in times of need and times of celebration, and a person with whom we have history and trust.
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson shared professional exploits, but were also two of the closest of friends in fictional literature. Our close group of friends—our intimate circle—is rather loosely defined in much of the research, and friendship groups vary in size and demographic make-up. In popular culture, the 1990s television show Friends revolved around 6 inseparable individuals who did everything together. The people on Friends lived their friendships on the day-to-day and demonstrated what it takes to make and maintain strong ties: ongoing contact, shared information and emotion, and solidarity or trust. A major focal point of the show was that Monica, Rachel, Phoebe, Ross, Chandler, and Joey spent much of their time at a coffee shop doing very little, or so it would seem. What they were doing was practicing the three major components of friendship: spending time together, conversing, and fostering connection. These behaviors forge the bonds of friendship and are vital to keeping the friends that we have, especially our closest friends. The structural landscape and behavioral tropes described above can be considered the Mechanics of Friendship. In short, mechanics describe how… we make friends, how we keep friends, and the impact of our interconnected relationships. Our friend lives can be understood from both macro and micro perspectives. Understanding of both views is important to grasp the enormous impact that friends have on our everyday lives as well as our potential for success and well-being.
Social Networks: The Macro View of the Science of Friendship
“A social network is an organized set of people that consists of two kinds of elements: human beings and the connections between them” Nicholas Christakis & James Fowler
Increasingly science is suggesting that we are all interconnected into webs of association. Individuals are connected by both family and non-kin ties into large groups known as social networks. These groups range from small clusters of just a few, such as a nuclear family of four, to large, complex masses of individuals, such as a graduating class from a large suburban high school. It is via our social networks that we gather information about the world, receive emotional and instrumental support, and create a sense of belonging in our social sphere. As will be described below, whom we know literally makes us who we are. In both science and popular culture, a concept known as Six Degrees of Separation has captured imaginations. Two social scientists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler (2009) are intrigued by social networks and described in their book, Connected, Stanley Milgram’s classic experiment that hypothesized that all people are connected by six degrees. In other words, it takes, on average, six points of contact, from person to person, to reach any other individual. Milgram’s research took place in the 1960s and was conducted within the borders of the United States. Thus some critics of his research noted that such interconnectivity may be true within one country, but could not be a global phenomenon. Christakis and Fowler went on to describe sociological research conducted in 2002 that proved that, indeed, the same Six Degree rule held true when email was forwarded from one person to another even across the globe. This concept is so compelling that it has even infiltrated pop culture. The actor Kevin Bacon, a ubiquitous celebrity with a career that spans 30 years, is the central figure in a game, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. The game posits that any other actor, dead or alive, who has worked in Hollywood, is connected to Kevin Bacon by six degrees or less. This game was created by a group of college students, but became a widespread pop phenomenon. Kevin Bacon recounts that he initially felt that he was the brunt of an unkind joke, but, ultimately, he had the realization that he could use his celebrity for a good cause and founded sixdegrees.org, a website that uses the concept of Six Degrees of Separation as a fundraising tool for a variety of charities. To date, the organization has raised over $5 million (Bacon, 2012).
Such astounding interconnectivity suggests that people must impact one another in virtually everything that we do. This concept runs counter to the typical Western notion that human beings are separate, autonomous individuals in charge of one’s own destiny. In fact, all of Christakis and Fowler’s research repeatedly disproves the lone individual view of human experience. But Six Degrees of Separation does not explain the precise impact that others have on an individual’s lived experience. While we may be able to reach any other person on the planet in six hops of connection in our given social networks, not all of the people in that network have direct impact on our day-to-day lives. Instead, Christakis and Fowler proved that the Three Degrees of Influence Rule is even more valuable in understanding how social networks impact our daily lives (Christakis & Fowler).
Everything we do or say tends to ripple through our network, having an impact on our friends (one degree), our friends’ friends (two degrees), and even our friends’ friends’ friends (three degrees). Our influence gradually dissipates and ceases to have a noticeable effect on people beyond the social frontier that lies at three degrees of separation. (Christakis & Fowler, 2009, p. 26)
Sociological, psychological, public health, and political research have demonstrated that the Three Degree of Influence Rule can influence everything from weight gain, to the spread of disease, to smoking cessation and even the candidate that someone will vote for. The connectivity in a network literally shapes and changes who we are as people. And the size effect of this influence can be considerable. To put an example of actual numbers on the scope of influence the Three Degree Rule describes, imagine that a person has 20 1st degree social contacts (these would include both friends and family). Each of those 20 contacts has 20 social contacts (2nd degree ties), and then each of those individuals also has 20 contacts (3rd degree ties). With these numbers, this means that a person would be connected to 8,000 people who can directly impact their life (Christakis & Fowler, 2009). Generally, our friend networks are largest in adolescence and early adulthood, shrink in midlife due to competing needs of family and work, and increase again slightly later in life. In one study, on average, adults report between 4.7 friends and 6.0 friends, depending on their stage in life (parents of teenagers on the lower end, and those nearing retirement on the upper end) (Weiss and Lowenthall, 1975, as cited in Blieszner and Adams, 1992). However, more recent research suggests “that we have fifteen [close friends] and sixteen lesser, but still ‘somewhat close’ ties” (Pew Internet & American Life Project as cited in Blau & Fingerman, 2009, p. 24). As with most research on friendship, the language of how we describe our friends is constantly shifting and also is not operationalized across research initiatives, so results of surveys vary widely depending upon the approach and language utilized by the researchers. Evidence from ongoing studies about structure, strength, and density of social networks suggests connectivity much larger than earlier reported averages.
Ties That Bind: Strong and Weak Links
Another way to envision the structure of social networks is through the variety of interpersonal ties, or strong ties, weak ties, and absent ties in a group. Sociologists have, for decades, examined the levels of connectivity demonstrated in friend dyads as well as across networks. In a classic 1973 essay that first differentiated between the three levels of ties, sociologist Mark Granovetter described the factors that define the strength of ties: “The strength of a tie is a (probably linear) combination of the amount of time, the intimacy (mutual confiding), and the reciprocal services which characterize the tie” (p. 1361). Thus, we have strong ties, or those to whom we are most closely connected (family, intimates, best friends and close friends), weak ties, people whom we know and interact with, but generally at some distance with regard to interval or proximity (friends and acquaintances), and absent ties, people we do not really know or know at all (Granovetter described these as “nodding” relationships; the people we may buy a newspaper from or know in passing on the subway). As noted above, in recent years, researchers have developed the Three Degrees of Influence Rule, but Granovetter and others assert that there is value in all interpersonal ties, even, arguably beyond three degrees.
The number of strong ties and weak ties in a given social network also impacts the way that individuals in the network interact with the rest of the world. For example, in a hypothetical social group, if Tom is friends with Carol; Carol is friends with Mark; and Mark is also friends with Tom, these people are said to have high transitivity, a scientific term for people deeply embedded in their social network. Christakis and Fowler (2009) have determined that “if you are a typical American, the probability that any two of our social contacts know each other is about 52 percent” (p. 309). While about half of your network is, then, mostly likely high in transitivity in relation to you, the other half creates the tendrils of the network that reach out toward the wider world.
Beyond the Inner Circle: Benefits of Weak Ties
Returning to the example above, Carol may also be friends with a woman named Helen who is friends with neither Tom nor Mark. Additionally, Helen most likely has other friends that do not know Carol. Her connections span outward rather than interconnecting with Carol’s close circle. Helen would, in this context, have lower transitivity. In other words, she is more peripheral in this given network and most likely has connections to other individuals in other networks. Helen, according to Granovetter and Christakis and Fowler, would be a bridge person, or someone who is a weak link in each network, but spans networks and thus creates connectivity across networks. People like Helen are important for this bridging function. Granovetter (1973) was, as noted above, a very early proponent of the importance of weak ties. He argued that, while we trust and rely in times of need on our strong ties, it is through our weak ties that we gain access to a wider group and things like potential job offerings, innovative ideas, and new acquaintances. His early research demonstrated that the vast majority of individuals he polled found a new job through a weak tie rather than a strong tie. These relationships help us reach out into new opportunities and create new connections. In fact, the founders of The Science of Friendship project were connected via a weak tie: I (Christine) was a classmate of Sean’s partner, who recommended that we might be a good match to get the project off the ground. Even though we had never met, the synergy around exploring the ways that individual and groups interact was an instant bond between us. If not for the tie in between, Sean and I would never have met.
Other research studies on the ways that innovations or information spread in industry are examples of the power of weak links. Harvard researcher Morton Hansen (1999) found that weak links were instrumental in product development within a company via the casual interdepartmental relations of employees. What he found was that the transfer of knowledge and information across research and development teams sped the time of product development, a strong measure of product development efficacy. However, one caveat is that such information needs to be clear and well described in order for the receiving unit to understand this new information. In other words, insider knowledge is difficult to transfer to those less well known, but innovations and well-explained (or codified) ideas transfer quite well across weak ties. The transfer of information across weak ties helps to mitigate some of the redundancy in thinking and innovation that takes place among strong ties, for whom most of their prior knowledge and information is already shared (redundant).
In much of the research on interpersonal ties, early notions were that ties must be actively maintained or they will break down or die. This belief was based on an assumption that tie-strength is based solely upon frequency of contact. New research is suggesting that emotional closeness is a vital factor that also impacts tie strength and is a factor that may determine tie strength as much if not more than frequency of contact. Building upon this new assumption, researchers from business schools at Rutgers, George Washington University and Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, assert that there is a category of ties called dormant ties, “a relationship between two individuals who have not communicated with each other for a long time, e.g., who have drifted apart due to job mobility, divergent interests, or other time demands” (Levin, Walter, & Murnighan, 2010, p. 2). One hundred twenty-nine executives in MBA programs in the U.S. and Canada were asked to reconnect with two dormant ties each: one a former strong tie, one a former weak tie, to provide sought-after knowledge related to a project which the executive was currently working on. The researchers found that “reconnected dormant ties are a lot like current weak ties in terms of being relatively efficient” (p. 14) when it came to knowledge acquisition on the project. In addition, both weak and strong ties can go dormant, and tie strength was not impacted by the dormancy: strong ties, when reactivated included higher levels of trust, while weak ties provided a level of novelty of information similar to current weak ties. Thus, similar to research on current weak ties, the researchers found that the reactivation of dormant weak ties may be of more efficient and greater benefit to the success of a project in a business setting.
It may seem as if weak ties only benefit business and industry from the examples above, but weak ties and absent ties play parts in everyday life as well. Taking Granovetter’s ideas into the personal or social spheres, Melinda Blau and Karen Fingerman (2009) have created a more fine-grained concept of these weak and absent ties. Based upon sociological research conducted by Fingerman, they have written extensively about the concept of a consequential stranger, or “someone you…know something about and with whom you are actually acquainted” (p. 3). The authors describe a spectrum of these consequential strangers from people with whom we interact regularly, but are not part of our intimate circles, to those whom Granovetter would call “nodding relationships,” as noted above. Consequential strangers are those in the degrees beyond first and second degree connections in the six degree model; and according to Blau and Fingerman, they serve great importance in our lives: “While those closest to our heart are synonymous with home, consequential strangers anchor us in the world and give us a sense of being plugged into something larger” (p. 5). According to Fingerman, an expert in adult relationships, consequential strangers, “have an impact on daily mood and well-being, instigate developmental changes, and support stability” (Fingerman, 2003, p. 184). As described above, these peripheral ties, or consequential strangers, create the outreaching webs of our social networks. And, generally, though them our networks grow.
Networks are not static and are ever changing; relationships dissolve for a variety of reasons including conflicts, changes in common interests, and even death. Thus, social networks evolve over time. The fluidity in networks allow for new connections to be made. When a friend dyad or new network is created, the process of making this new friend is called friend formation. The following will describe research and developmental models related to the mechanics of friendship, or how we form and maintain these close social bonds.
Friend Formation: The Micro View of the Science of Friendship
“No friendship is an accident.” O. Henry
Beyond family ties and childhood development research, personal relationship studies did not really emerge until the 1980s (Blieszner & Roberto, 2004), and social scientists, as evidence above, have only recently come to understand the importance of wider social networks. There is a longer history of research focused on dyadic and triadic friendship structure including the processes through which we make and maintain friendships. Drawing upon early and mid-20th century psychological research, twenty years ago, Blieszner & Adams (1992) created the first comprehensive overview of the friendship research that had been done to date and created a dynamic, multi-level model of adult friendship formation. The model takes into consideration lifespan development and life situations to offer a rich description of the phases and processes in adult friendships. In the model, the authors describe 3 categories of friendship: acquaintance, casual and close friendships. Part of the challenge of understanding the research on friendship over the years has included the fact that most researchers have differed in defining these 3 categories of friends, often relying on self-description of research participants or very narrowly-defined criteria for categorization such as quantity of friend interactions, which potentially overlooks quality of friendship or a sense of closeness across geographic or temporal distance, as noted above. While the ongoing discussion about the definition and boundaries of friendship has continued for decades, a generalized consensus about friendships, specific to Western frames and cultures is emerging in the social sciences. In general:
In Western cultures, friendship is usually defined as a voluntary relationship that encompasses intimacy, equality, shared interests, and pleasurable need satisfying interactions. In contrast to family or even neighbor relationships, scholars view friendship as a noninstitutionalized relationship for which the norms are self-defined and fairly loose. Ordinarily, friendship is neither ritualized nor celebrated in the ways that kin ties are formalized. . . .[The authors] will adopt the typical Western definition of friendship as an informal voluntary relationship, and focus attention on the meanings and functions of friendship across the life span. (Blieszner & Roberto, 2004, p. 159).
This definition then, creates a set of operating norms that enable researchers to conceptualize, and, thus, study friendships in Western contexts. Much more research is needed cross-culturally and in a variety of social settings to better understand the social mores and boundaries around friendships across the globe. Understanding friendship enables social scientists, public policy makers, and others curious and concerned about the well-being of entire communities to better serve individuals and socially connected groups.
The Phases of Friend Formation
The progression from relative stranger to long-term, close relationship can include up to 3 phases of formation: initiation, maintenance and, in some instances, dissolution (Blieszner & Roberto, 2004). As noted above, other researchers are now intrigued by the concept of dormant ties, but these early researchers did not take this contemporary concept into consideration, most likely due to the reality that, twenty years ago, it was more difficulty to maintain ties across long distances. The phases of formation can vary in time from days to years, depending on the nature of the individuals forming a friendship and the circumstances in which they meet and foster the relationship. The initiation phase is the time when acquaintances move into closer connection and establish friendship. The conditions that are necessary to form the bond include repeated interaction, either in a dyad or small group, and to “have an appropriate degree of privacy, and interact frequently enough and for a long enough duration to enable them to become comfortable with one another” (Blieszner & Roberto, p. 165). This is the phase where people determine likeability of the other and levels of shared similarities. Social networks are generally constructed around shared interests or common values and beliefs. This does not mean that friends have to be just like each other, but what the individuals believe is important or of value must be shared for lasting friendship to form. Research into the way personality traits impact friend formation and maintenance, the next phase of friendship, will be explored below.
The second phase of friendship formation is the maintenance phase, or the ongoing development and care of the relationship. This period, which can last a very long time, over years or decades in many instances, includes the day-to-day function of the connection. During this phase, maintenance is achieved by maintaining interest in one another, demonstrating affection toward one another and sustained involvement in the relationship (Blieszner & Adams, 1992). The levels of care, or neglect, to the relationship are factors determining whether the relationship deepens, remains at a steady level, or moves toward the dissolution phase, or the ending of the friendship. While dissolution can be a result of neglect of the friendship or from a falling out, friendships also end if one of the members dies or relocates and falls out of a level of connection with the other to keep the relationship viable. With the rise of online social networks, however, connectivity across great distance has changed the ways in which we are able to maintain relationships globally. A full exploration of online social networks and friendship will be contained in a future Science of Friendship paper (slated for Winter 2013). As friends navigate the various phases of friend formation, conscious and unconscious choices are at play in moving from causal to close friend.
Structural Factors of Friendship
Beyond the temporal phases of friend formation, Blieszner and Adams’ (1992) integrative model of friendship takes into consideration the structure of the relationships as well as the processes enacted in both friend dyads and social networks. What is striking about their model is that the researchers note that structural factors, or the social context in which people live (cultural influence, socioeconomic status and geographic location, for example), as well as individual characteristics, such as psychological disposition (things like happiness and likeability), must be carefully considered as influential in friendship research. In earlier research, either structure or psychology would be weighted in a study, but Blieszner and Adams argue that such lopsided perspective does not offer a comprehensive picture of friendship. Rather, the opportunities and constraints of one’s social position may impact the lifecycle of a friendship right along with the personal and interpersonal style of the members of a friendship network.
The basic elements of dyadic structure [friendship] include the relative power and status of the participants (internal hierarchy), the similarity and dissimilarity of the social positions of the participants (homogeneity), and the intimacy binding the participants to one another (solidarity). (Blieszner & Adams, 1992, pp. 41-42)
Like Meets Like: Sameness in Friend Formation
Research has demonstrated that, in general, friends have a lot in common. In other words, we are, in general, attracted to people who are much like us with regard to race, age, religion, education, profession, and gender (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Cook, 2001; see also Blieszner & Adams, 1992; Christakis & Fowler, 2009; Selfhout, Burk, Branje, Denissen, van Aken, & Meeus, 2010). Such similarity is referred to as homogeneity (similarity among members of a group), or that we practice homophily (we like those who are like us).
In a comprehensive overview of the research that supports the concept that “birds of a feather flock together,” sociologists Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith Lovin, and James Cook (2001) note that there are two categories of the phenomenon of like attracting like: status homophily and value homophily. Status homophily indicates the demographic, social location and behaviors of individuals. As one example of a demographic factor that impacts friend formation and maintenance, similarity in age is common in friend networks. The authors cite many early and impactful studies related to age homophily, including Fisher’s findings “that 38% of all Detroit men’s close friends were within two years of their age; 72% were within eight years” and Marsden’s conclusions “that age heterogeneity in confiding networks was about 60% of what would be expected by random assortment in the population; eliminating kin confidants reduces age heterogeneity to less than half of expected” (p. 424). The exceptions to the age similarity rule include spans of age across kin networks, but non-kin friends are generally selected from similar age brackets.
Value homophily describes the ways in which attitudes, abilities, beliefs and aspirations influence the make-up of our social networks. McPherson and his colleagues suggest that this area is one in which “most people spontaneously recognize that similarity breeds fellowship” (p. 428). Much of the scientific experimental literature has shown that some of the similarity that has been attributed to value homophily may, in actuality, be assumed similarity rather than actual sameness (e.g., assumptions about political views and affiliations that often go unspoken but are reflected in other altruistic behaviors such as charitable giving). The act of friend selection (differentiated from maintenance of friendship) is impacted by status and value homophily. Slotter and Gardner (2011) recently discovered that we even select friends based upon conscious and unconscious assumptions that our friends can help us become the person that we seek to be: they can help us attain the goals that we believe will make us the best we can possibly be. Along this line of thinking, homophily may not be actual, but aspirational, or a goal set to better ourselves.
Returning back to the concept of strong ties and weak ties, homophily is a common sociological theory that explains the behaviors and values often cited in the creation of tightly bound cultural groups. However, a lack of bridging members of a group can result in a lack of diversity within the group. Research is demonstrating that such insularity creates a risk of isolation or insulation from novel ideas, absence of exchange of information, and lack of cross-cultural exchange that enables innovation, cultural competence, and in the case of environmental studies, even sustainability in times of ecological decline (Newman & Dale, 2005). Thus, social networks are, in general, comprised of like-mined and socially similar individuals. But these very networks benefit greatly from the inclusion of members who are capable of bridging multiple groups and infusing the network with diverse perspectives and the introduction of diverse new members to the group. Bridging members are, then, both like-minded and also externally focused.
Who We Are Matters: Personality Factors in Friendship
Research on individual personal qualities that impact friend formation reveals that who we are on the personal level directly relates to who we choose as friends—and whether we are chosen as friends by others. Along with the sociocultural and demographic factors discussed above, a person’s psychological make-up impacts the ability to make friends as well. This may seem like common sense; a person with strong psychological stability and maturity may appear, on the surface, to be better material for friendship. But there are also subtle factors at play that are important to consider. The concept of likeability has been studied in friendship research and is an important factor in a person’s ability to initiate and maintain friendships. Blieszner and Adams (1992) note that liking and disliking are actually two different constructs. With regard to friend selection, individuals who are actively disliked will not be selected as friends in the first place while individuals who are liked will not be disliked in the future when negative attributes and behaviors may be discovered in friend interactions. In other words, we are apt to forgive negative qualities in those we deem likeable, but will not make friends with those we judge as dislikeable from the very beginning. It may appear from this reasoning that unlikeable people are doomed to loneliness. But, according to Tim Sanders (2006), a consultant in the fields of communication, psychology, and online media, who has distilled years of research on likeability into a popular book, the Likeability Factor (L-Factor) can be learned. Sanders noted four primary elements that are measured to calculate a person’s likeability: friendliness, relevance, empathy, and realness. The L-Factor, as defined by Sanders “is an ability to create positive attitudes in other people through the delivery of emotional and physical benefits” (location 313). In short, to discern likeability, ask: Is a person perceived as friendly? Does the person seem to relate to the interest of others? Can the person demonstrate an understanding for others’ feelings? And, does the person appear authentic? Sanders cited research from multiple fields including advertising, politics, family therapy and psychology that, repeatedly, demonstrated that likeability affects everything from job selection and retention, to access to medical care, to the longevity and health of family and friend relations. According to Sanders, being liked equates to personal and professional gain and better interpersonal interaction. Being liked means being successful. The author goes on to offer exercises aimed as increasing a person’s efficacy in each of the four domains of likeability. Thus, with practice, one’s L-Factor can be increased, and, according to Sanders, change for the better will result.
The L-Factor is different from the social science construct of personality. In psychology, personality encompasses the complex internal understanding of the self as well as the cognitive and affective behaviors that ensue from such self-understanding. Thus, personality is a way to think about how a person perceives herself and also how this perception impacts her interaction in the world. Various models of personality have been developed to quantify and categorize personality characteristics including Jungian typology, the Enneagram, the Meyers-Briggs Typology Index, and the Big Five factor model. Each model, in general, assesses variables such as a person’s processing or relating style, reactivity to novel experience, levels of neuroticism, and general ways that others (based upon your behavior and emotional responses) will respond to you. Recent research out of Sweden studied how factors of the Big Five model (which focuses on the concepts of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism) impact formation of social networks, including friend dyads. The operating assumptions of the study were: “[that] there may be personality differences in the number of friends individuals select. Second, personality may affect the extent to which individuals are being selected as a friend. Finally, being similar in personality may affect friendship selection processes” (Selfhout, Burk, Branje, Denissen, van Aken, & Meeus, 2010, p. 510). What the researchers discovered was that certain personality characteristics did impact the number of friends a person makes, the number of invitations to become a friend a person receives, and how similarity impacts the initiation and potential maintenance of friendship.
This recent research was novel in that it was conducted in a naturalistic environment rather than as a laboratory experiment. The participants were assigned cohorts of 205 freshmen psychology students in a Swedish university. In addition, unlike earlier friend research that, in general, has overly relied on a focus on friend dyads, this research took a social network approach to understanding how and how many friendships were made over time. Over the course of a year, the students were measured at five different intervals for initiating friendship (nominating), receiving friendship overtures (nominations received) as well as transitivity (described above as the tendency to make friends with people who are already friends with our friends). In addition, at each measurement interval, the students were re-evaluated on a Big Five personality scale. Results of the research indicated that, first and foremost, the personality factors stayed stable over time for the research participants. And, as hypothesized, certain traits of the Big Five model were predictive of certain friend-making behaviors. Individuals who self-rate as being more Extraverted (outwardly-focused vs. shy or reserved) tended to make the most friendship requests. It would be assumed, then, that Extraverted individuals must then also receive the most friend nominations. However, the quality more indicative to being invited to be someone’s friend was Agreeableness (warm vs. emotionally distant). It can be suggested that those who rate high for Agreeableness may have high L-Factor, and, thus, would be considered more likeable and attractive as a potential friend. One other finding was striking: individuals with similar self-reports for Extraversion, Agreeableness, as well as Openness were more likely to make and maintain friendship ties. It is not that individuals had to rate “high” for these qualities. The rating system for the factors of the Big Five model is not hierarchical. Rather, the scales for each of the 5 categories are related to tendencies toward or away from a specific interaction style. Thus, this finding suggests that it is the similarity of interaction style rather than rating high for any of these qualities that is a better predictor of friend formation. Additionally, since this research took a social network rather than a dyadic approach, information related to homophily was reaffirmed; we select friends who are similar to us and from among our other friends. As the researchers noted:
In short, individuals tended to use the structure of the friendship network as a whole to select friends. As these network effects may be correlated with main effects and similarity effects of personality on friendship selection, they need to be taken into account when examining personality effects on friendship selection. (Selfhout, Burk, Branje, Denissen, van Aken, & Meeus, 2010, p. 531)
Conclusion: Impacts of the Mechanics of Friendship
As has been noted throughout this overview of the mechanics of friendship, we choose our friends based upon factors that, without consideration of the research at hand, may seem inevitable, to simply happen, and be rather sudden in initiation. However, evidence is strong that we select friends within known networks, or, we create networks of friends based upon commonalities such as shared personality traits or beliefs and values. Thus, the more we understand why and how we make friends, the better able we are to tend our existing friendships as well as invite new connections. Since psychological and physical well-being are deeply impacted by social support and connection with others (Brooks, 2012), becoming aware of the mechanics of making friends and the psychosocial factors that influence our ability to make friends takes on new importance. Data from the 2003 General Social Survey of Canada compiled from more than 24,000 respondents demonstrated a correlation between strong social networks and subjective well-being (van der Horst & Coffé, 2011). In this study, subjective well-being was measured with regard to levels of social trust, stress, health and social support. Factors related to friend networks were measured with regard to number of friends, frequency of contact, and heterogeneity of network. What these researchers found is that there is a strong relationship between subjective well-being and number of friends and frequency of contact. As discussed above, however, heterogeneity was negatively related to subjective well-being in most instances, thus continuing to affirm that social networks are homophilius in nature. Interestingly, research prior to this study often hypothesized that contemporary friend networks are established for enjoyment rather than instrumental reasons: in other words, friends are for fun, but not to be relied on in hard times. This research set this supposition on its head, finding that, while individuals reported challenges in accepting instrumental help from friends, those in close social networks with high homogeneity reported that such instrumental help is more common than expected. In short, we turn to our friends in times of need, even when it is challenging to ask for help because there is a sense of solidarity, or all of us being in it together, established in close social networks. Breaking a pattern in social research that had assumed that all individuals reach out to family and consider family the tantamount relational tie, new research is overwhelmingly describing a new social landscape: one in which friend networks impact everything about us from health, to happiness, to how we spend leisure time and our level of civic engagement. A broadened focus on friend networks and the impact that the mechanics of friendship has on individual and collective well-being is a rich area of information related to contemporary social life—one that has, until recently, gone underexplored, considering, as noted above, the vast influence friends have upon one another. Future research will continue to define how and why we make and maintain friends and, possibly, contribute to greater understanding of how social networks grow, diversify, and innovate over time.
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