It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.
“[There’s] new evidence supporting the so-called ‘alliance hypothesis’ of friendship, which states that individuals’ feelings about their friends are based mostly on how those friends feel about them.” (“Research Suggests Friendship Is Built on Alliances,” Penn News, 2/3/2010)
I was initially intrigued by this article because of, duh, my love for Survivor. Turns out it has nothing to do with my favorite reality show (or its crush-worthy host), although the concept of alliances on the island isn’t totally dissimilar from this new BFF hypothesis.
At first glance, this new research doesn’t really seem like news. We like the people who like us back. So what?
But the researchers say the alliance hypothesis is in opposition to the friendship motivators most people believe in. It “contrasts with the more conventional ‘reciprocity’ theory of friendship, which holds that humans make friends mostly in order to reap the reciprocal benefits.”
I’ve often mentioned here that reciprocity is a rule of friendship. If I make plans with a new friend, she should (eventually) invite me places in return. If I give her a ride to the airport, she shouldn’t mind driving me home after dinner one night. Not exactly eye-for-an-eye, but the concept isn’t too far off.
These researchers are saying it’s not about keeping score, it’s about who likes us best. We are jealous creatures, and we want the friends we rank as “best” to put us in their top spot in return.
It sounds petty at first: We only like people because they like us? What about appreciating people for their kind hearts or sense of humor or generosity of spirit? But think about it seriously. What’s your reaction when Sally says that Jenny is her very best friend forever, and Jenny says Sally is a just-ok buddy.
It comes off as sad. Desperate even. Like poor Sally is hanging on Jenny’s every word. They’re like Gretchen Wieners and Regina George.
People want BFFs to share half-heart necklaces with. And if your BFF values you as much as you value her, shouldn’t reciprocity logically follow? You’ll want to do nice things for each other, in a relatively equal amount?
Of course, this is where Survivor does indeed tie in. You are in an alliance with someone who you hope likes you as much as you like them, and thus will want to keep you until the end. (Unbelievable side note: I actually didn’t realize that Survivor premieres tonight until half-way through writing this blog post. It’s some sort of cosmic love between me and Jeff at work here.)
If you had to pick, which “friendship hypothesis” would you say drives your relationships? The reciprocal, “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” theory? Or the alliance “you like me the best so I’ll like you” principle?