The Hard Facts: The Role Genes Play in Friendship

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

You might have more in common with your BFF than a shared passion for football, politics, or kitty cats. Just like members of the same family, you and your ‘bestie’ could be sharing some very compatible genes, according to a new study published Monday in PNAS, the journal of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.” (“Friends feel like family? You make be genetically tied,” msnbc.com, 1/17/2010)

This latest study from James Fowler (who’s already brought us such doozies as how your parents affect your popularity and why any two of your social contacts probably already know each other) has identified a specific gene that, if two people both carry it, makes them more likely to be friends. DRD2, the gene in question, is said to be associated “with alcoholism, among other things.”

The logical next question, then, is are the genes really choosing our friends? Or are two people with a tendency toward alcoholism more likely to meet (in, say, a bar, or AA) than another two people. It’s a little bit chicken or the egg.

The authors of this study aren’t claiming to have the answer just yet. But they are saying that finding genetic links could be the “beginnings of a scientific explanation for the elusive quality of ‘chemistry’ among friends.”

Of course, in the same study, they reveal that another gene—CYP2A6—has an opposites attract effect. People who carry it, the authors found, are attracted to people who don’t. CYP2A6 is “associated with an ‘open’ personality.” I’m not entirely sure what that means, but I assume it’s someone (like me, maybe?) who is happily willing to share things about herself with the people she meets. It’s that same question again. Is it really the genes determining friendships? Or is someone who is especially “open” more drawn to someone who is a bit more “closed”? Someone who complements her outgoing nature with a quiet calm?

I’m never quite sure what to make of some of the friendship research. Like with so many studies, the findings of one often seems to contradict those of another.

Even Fowler himself said that the idea that one gene would be attracted to itself and another would be attracted to its opposite “should not be true at the same time.” I do love it when researchers readily admit there’s more work to be done.

Personally, I believe in nature and nurture. Obviously it’s a bigger debate than I can adequately address in this blog. But I am willing to say it’s hard for me to imagine that who you’re friends with is mostly due to how your genes match up. Just seems to me there’s more to it… but what do I know? I’m no geneologist. Maybe I just like the notion of letting that “spark” feel like magic, as opposed to tracing it to some fancy lettered gene.

Do you believe genes help determine your friendships? Or is it more of a nurture thing? And, when it comes to who your friends are, do you even care about these kinds of studies?

4 Comments

Filed under The Search

4 responses to “The Hard Facts: The Role Genes Play in Friendship

  1. While I agree with your nature/nurture analysis, I also am excited about the possibility that genes have something to do with it.
    My BFF#1 & I have been friends for over 5 years; I call her my 2nd sister, and we look & act, think & feel so much alike that sometimes it freaks me out.
    BFF#2 & I have been friends for a little over a year; just last weekend we had a great conversation about how we’re such very different people – basically we buy things for each other after having this thought process: “Do I like it? No? Then she will!” – but we get along so well and bounce great ideas off each other.
    And then finally there’s Work BFF, who just yesterday wanted to have a coffee date because she said I was the only one of her friends who she could talk to about feelings, and as she wasn’t used to having those, she needed an expert – talk about opposites attracting!
    Three great friendships with three great, very different women; could genes explain some of it? I think maybe so.

  2. Suzannah

    Most old sayings have some validity….’ birds of the feather, flock together’…..

  3. I’m not sure about shared genes; like you I prefer to think of it as an elusive, magical spark — something inexplicable that draws two people together. Regardless of its root, though, I do think there are complex aspects of our personalities that can make the “work” of connection and friendship feel more like work with some people…whereas with others it’s more like, “How did I get lucky enough to have this person in my life?”

  4. I think they may be some truth in it…I have noticed similarities between my friends and my sister’s friends…then again, it could just be that our similar personalities attract similar type of people.

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