The Hard Facts: Why We Stick To Our Alliances

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?


Filed under The Hard Facts

8 responses to “The Hard Facts: Why We Stick To Our Alliances

  1. diana mack

    is seems to be very true with friends found at work….who doesn’t want to be best buds with the girl who knows all the gossip andgives you a heads-up on stuff before the memo comes out?
    and who hasn’t stopped having playdates because you seem to be the only one driving/hosting??
    part of being human i guess

  2. Jen

    Love the Mean Girls reference!

  3. Suzannah

    This is my favorite research post so far…I think it all goes back to the basic need for validation and approval….
    I think this post speaks to the reason most of us have such a difficult time getting over a friendship breakup….very hard to process that at one point the friend mirrored back at us a feeling that felt very embracing ….to then get a feeling that is very frustrating or rejecting..

  4. LizC

    I think it’s definitely the reciprocal relationship that drives my friendships. Most of the friends I no longer talk to are no longer my friends because I was always the one inviting them places, setting up the lunch or dinner dates, making the phone calls, and sending the emails. It felt very one-sided and even if they were usually up for doing what I planned they never initiated. Although I think that probably ties into the alliance idea because that says to me that they don’t like me as much as I like them so I cut my losses and move on.

    • Lorrie Paige

      Ah, Liz. I hear ya’. That’s the story of my friendship life.
      Obviously, the reciprocation will never be an absolute perfect percentage to the point match in loving each other, but yeah, I’ve always said reciprocation is extremely important.

      I think the less friends one has, the more likely the person will love more, give more to their BFF than the other with more friends because they have to spread their love to more people. I’ve never had many friends, thus I’ve always had plenty, an over-abundance—hahaha!—of love to give. But it comes a point when the relationship is one-sided, then I can start resenting, sometime of feeling used, until I realize that–hey–I’m the one who’s letting this happen…So I back off and like you Liz, move on.

      Fortunately, my boyfriend (who I also consider a friend) is like me in that we are both such big lovers (I’m using in this particular sense, lovers in a platonic way) and big givers. You should see us in action! I do for him, and he feels the love so reciprocates by doing something in return. I feel the love and return by doing something again. And we just keep doing this back and forth, effortlessly, lovingly, passionately.

      We also do so much in the way of “just because”.

      It’s magic!

  5. This posting reminds me a bit of Liz Gilbert’s awareness in her book Committed. After articulating all the disadvantages of women getting married and pondering why we still consume our lives with that search when research shows it has such high failures rates and seems to hurt women more than help them (health, finances, stress,etc.) and basically it came down to the fact that we all want to feel chosen. It makes sense that our friendships would reflect that same desire. It seems to be the human hunger to want to be picked, chosen, loved. Certainly every friendship is more meaningful when you feel special to that person, huh? 🙂 Great posting on great research.

    Always love your blog posts Rachel! (And if your friend just moved to SF and is up to it– we have a speed friending event next week:

    introducing women. inspiring friendship.

  6. Lorrie Paige

    Today’s blog post is similar to yesterday’s post in reciprocating first moves.
    There is also what I believe can be called a *laws of reciprocation among strangers* where you shouldn’t always be the one to approach people to chat (as I mentioned in yesterday’s blog post). It’s healthier being the first to make the move about %50 of the time, thereby giving others a chance to approach. So, in my opinion, it’s not just a friend thing in reciprocating; it carries on to how you deal with others before they even become a friend.

    But for now, I’ll sit back and let someone else make the first move, a I said in yesterday’s post. If they don’t do anything, oh well, I personally just believe that they weren’t really interested in chatting anyway.

  7. Pingback: Mostly mwf | Cateringforme

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