The Hard Facts: Diversity Doesn’t Diversify Your Pals

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

“Logic would suggest that the more diverse a society or group of people is, the more diverse the friendships within that group would be. … But a new study finds that the opposite is actually the case.
At [a university with a large student body], students tended to have friends who mirrored their beliefs, values, attitudes and personalities more closely than those at smaller colleges. ” (
“Friends Like Me: Why Diverse Groups May Lead to Similar Friends”  healthland.time.com 9/30/2011)

I don’t find this research all that surprising, even if the authors are trying to make it sound counterintuitive.

Yes, it’s true that one main reason people move to big cities is for the diversity of the population. And it’s also true that one of the main reasons I chose to go to college at Chicago’s Northwestern over a small school in Vermont is that I wanted a more diverse student body. My visit to Vermont, while intellectually stimulating, was basically a blur of white people in North Face jackets. Everyone looked alike, and it was creepy. I wanted to be among all types of potential friends.

And yet, when I look back at my college experience, my gang of besties looked pretty similar to me. Most shared my religion and political views. Diverse we were not.

Just like the research says.

When you are surrounded by a huge student body, all the “options” can seem overwhelming. There are so many different potential friends, such varied groups to hang out with. When overwhelmed with choices, it doesn’t surprise me that people flock to what is familiar. Isn’t that how most decisions play out, whether you are picking friends or paint colors?

According the study, it’s more complex than that: “The authors suggest that these effects are due to greater social mobility: that is, the more people there are, the easier is it is to make new friends and then move to another social group if it doesn’t work out. So people continue to sift through the various social groups and seek out friends who are like them in increasingly fine-grained ways. Sociologist have shown that this granularity can extend as far as physical appearance, or even having the same first letter in your name.”

Scientific research continues to prove what I wish weren’t true: we’ve all got a homogeneity bias. Or, as the authors write in their study: “Similarity is ubiquitous and desirable.”

Have you noticed this research to be true? Are you more likely to flock to similar friends when you are in a large diverse group? Or do you use the opportunities afforded by a diverse population to befriend a more varied group of people?

8 Comments

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8 responses to “The Hard Facts: Diversity Doesn’t Diversify Your Pals

  1. I definitely agree with this. As much as we say we want someone different, we want someone that challenges us, we also want them to be similar – no one likes fighting and not being able to do what they want to all the time.

    And oddly enough two of my best friends (who are also best friends) have names that start with the same letter (S) and have the same birthday (and they didn’t know each other before meeting at school).

  2. Sad but true. Most of my friends are Caucasian. The ones who are not have some other interest that mirrors my own. Like, maybe they too are a writer, or a vegetarian or play volleyball or are an atheist. Whatever. Maybe they are straight edge. (It’s really hard to find friends who don’t want to spend an evening boozing.) Like finds like. Caucasian is not something I look for, and yet when I look at my friends, that’s mostly what I find.

  3. I immediately thought of this differently than you did. My reaction was of course, because in a smaller group it’s harder to find people just like you. There’s this idea that that’s why niches are so big on the internet; the group of potential connections is so large that everyone can find someone into what they’re into. I see this as no different. It also reminds me of that saying that you are the average of your 5 closest friends…

    That said, I choose the small school; and as a result during college several of my friends were very different than i was… but many of them had similarities that were less obvious. For example, although i am a white american female who, until college had never been outside the US, one of my best friends was a large black male who had grown up in Kenya and India. But we were raised in very similar family structures—with a very similar belief system.

    • First of all, I’d never heard that saying that you are the average of your 5 closest friends–that’s fascinating!

      And your experience is so in line with the research. Like you said, it can be harder to find people who are like you, so you become friends with a more diverse group. And, according to the research, those are actually the closer friendships.

      • Yeah, I can’t recall where I first heard the 5 closest friends thing, but my bf and I talk about it all the time. It’s been interesting, since he and i have been dating for 7 years now, to see how our friends have reflected how we’ve each changed over time.

  4. Renee

    Makes sense to me too! At big schools, or in big cities, you are constantly confronted with swarms of potential friends. Diverse though the pool may be, trying to pick 2 or 3 people out of a million with the criteria “who has absolutely nothing in common with me?” is a ridiculous approach; so you seek out the ethnic association, or religious congregation, or special interest group (sports, arts, etc.) that matches yours. They are comprised of people ethnically, religiously, politically like yourself.

    I think studying or working abroad is a good example of this phenomena: no matter who you or your fellow travelers are, you seek each other out because you have that common ground- political, religious, ethnic differences aside- you come from the same culture, make the same assumptions, and speak the same language. In your own comfort zone, though, they are people you wouldn’t seek out.

  5. Layla

    I’ve noticed this. If I look back on my friends, every time there’s been someone with curly brown hair, dresses conservatively, a bit shy but studious. My group of friends always tend to be the shy type of people who aren’t popular, but aren’t disliked either. Even when I tried to change this in first year, it didn’t work out and I made friends with… well… a studious brown haired girl, a slightly socially awkward dark blonde haired girl…..

  6. Elisabeth

    I had a hyper-diverse set of “friends” in my college years. They weren’t very good “friends” and the whole experience left me riddled with issues on race. I felt they were always ditching me for friends of their own race (asian, black, indian, etc). Being creeped out by the idea that some of my friends simply hated white people also took it’s toll, and awkwardness and suspicion began to sink it where before it was innocence and naivety. I began to long for white people so badly. When the option to self-segregate presented itself to me, I chose it.

    I grew up a standard left wing white liberal.
    I am now extremely right wing when it comes to issues of race, diversity, culture and immigration.

    Down on Diversity,
    We (people who lived the life of a white minority) exist too,
    E

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