A Friend Like Me

This study quoted in Scientific American raises some interesting considerations for online “friending” behaviours – it would be a valuable extension to this research to determine if similar factors applied to social networks!

A new study published September 21 in Group Processes & Intergroup Relations suggests that when people are able to choose friends from a larger, more diverse group, they pick pals who are most similar to themselves. Those in smaller groups, however, wind up with dissimilar—but closer—friendships.

“The ironic finding is that in more diverse environments, we find less diverse friendships,” says social psychologist Angela Bahns of Wellesley College in Massachusetts, lead author of the study. She compared students at large and small college campuses to see how their social environments shaped their friendship choices. Although you might expect people who go to a large, varied campus to spend time with a more diverse group of people, in fact it just allows them to be more exclusive, Bahns says.

Whereas there is a large body of research suggesting that we have a universal preference for similarity (in everything from behavior to first-name initials), similar is not always better, according to Bahns. In fact, she found that in spite of more differences in attitudes, values and behaviors, students on small campuses reported closer friendships than their large-campus counterparts.

“If you live in a world where there’s not much choice, you’re going have to settle for people who are not as similar as you,” says co-author Chris Crandall, a psychologist at the University of Kansas (K.U.) in Lawrence. “But you can be perfectly happy with friends who aren’t that similar.”