The Science of Friendship


A scientific insight into the best way to make friends.


How many friends do you have? In the social media era we find ourselves in, sites like Facebook make it far easier to quantify than it ever has been. The internet does a fantastic job of giving you a daily summery of the amount of friends you have, but while fantastically precise, it cannot quite capture the real ‘magic’ behind what you get in a friendship. While Oscar Wild brilliantly claimed that true friends are people who would, “stab you in the front” personally, I believe C.S. Lewis described the connection with another person better when he said, “it is one of those things that gives value to survival.” Even on them few occasions they drive us so mad that we feel like we could not live with our friends, deep down we know, we couldn’t live without them.

Interactions between people have become a keen interest for some of the world’s leading neuroscientists, giving us some amazing insights to how the brain reacts to friendship. One intriguing finding that has been found is that rejection by someone you are connecting with really hurts, and not just emotionally. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, a scan to monitor what area of the brain is in use, scientist at UCLA found that areas of the brain respond to the rejection of another human in an incredibly similar way as we do if we are suffering physical pain. In an experiment to test how people’s brains react to being rejected by a possible friend, they found that when someone was ignoring the participant, areas within the brain react almost identically as if we had been physically hurt. Matthew D. Lieberman, one of the paper’s authors and an assistant professor of psychology claims that, “physical and social pain may be more similar than we realized.”

If connecting with people and making friends is so important how can we get the best results when trying to do it? When first meeting someone, it would seem like common sense that both of you would want to show the positive aspects of your personality to each other. To illustrate this, try the following thought experiment…

You are in a movie rental shop; you strike up a conversation with someone who you would like to become friends with. You are both chatting away and they ask the question, “Name me one film you have seen in the last week?” luckily, in the last week you have seen 2 films. The first, Was a critically acclaimed film that is highly regarded by film fans (think, you would be happy for people to see you walking down the street with the DVD case in your hand). The second was a film that has been a guilty pleasure of yours (think, if you bought it you would want to keep it in the carrier bag when walking home, but you could tell your parents you watched it.) What one do you tell the stranger you have seen?

Pick the first movie? The vast majority of people presented with this situation, or others similar, do as well. It is common sense that showing the best side of yourself would make you more likeable, yet new research indicates this might not be the correct way to approach making friends. Like on so many occasions, the data shows that our conventional wisdoms are mistaken on a grand scale.

Dr Arthur Aron of Stony Brook University wanted to explore the possibility of finding a way that would make strangers bond, form close friendships, and maybe even find a little bit of romance in a short amount of time. In this experiment on “fast friends” they arranged participants in pairs, giving them 36 questions that they were both asked to discuss openly for an hour. The questions started needing only limited amounts of self-disclosure. Initially posing questions like, ‘if you could have anyone for dinner dead or alive who would it be?’ This gradually escalated needing the participants to expose more of their vulnerable aspects, posing questions like, ‘when do you think a decision you made took your life in the wrong direction, and how would you change that if you could?’ This worked better than predicted as pairs reported feeling unusually close to the person they had shared their answers with. In a statistically significant amount of pairings, participants that had been randomly placed together had exchanged contact details and wanted to meet up again. most even carried on chatting well over the allotted hour. They concluded that this connection is based not just on reciprocal self-disclosure – Being vulnerable with each other – but on gradually escalating reciprocal self-disclosure. In follow up studies, Dr Aron found that there was in fact the case and there is real connecting power in exposing your vulnerability.

Research like Dr Aron’s will never provide a complete walk through guide to making friends. There are many factors that play a role in connecting to people, but we hope this you can use the insights shown by this experiment to help improve your connections out there in the world. Next time you find yourself in a situation where you have the option to expose a vulnerable part of yourself, go for it! Self-disclosure, at the right time, can make a relationship. Pleases let us know how, or indeed if, this research works in your life via twitter, we are on @RealitySwipe, see you next week Swipers!

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52 Responses to The Science of Friendship

  1. Ippo says:

    “Self-disclosure, at the right time, can make a relationship” -> Agreed. But in more intimate relationships most companions like the existance of some mystery, even if they don’t admit it.

  2. Excellent article realtiyswipe, I use a ‘speed-dating’ activity to introduce all of my students to each other at the start of the year. I think after reading this I may throw in some challenging questions that will expose their vulnerable side. This could strengthen the students friendships from day 1.Thanks!

  3. If only video rental shops still existed! I find these moment occasionally when browsing in a bookstore.

  4. realityswipe says:

    a book store would be a fantastic place to find situations like the one mentioned! We think that internet dating would be another time this could work well.

  5. Really interesting post! It’s so true, it’s always better to be completely open and honest when meeting new people. Thanks for sending the link!

  6. This is really interesting. Honestly, I did not have much idea about this. Thanks a lot. 😀

  7. busygreenmum says:

    Interesting. I thought this would be true but it was taking exactly this approach with friends ( both new and old) – expressing a vulnerability and hoping for a bit of support which appeared to result in me being dropped off all social invitations, and thinking I need to make new friends.

    • realityswipe says:

      We are sorry to hear that. At Reality Swipe HQ we have had a think and we recommend two books that may help with your dilemma…

      Book 1, Click: The Magic of Instant Connections – Ori Brafman -a book on forming bonds with others that is based on brilliant scientific research (including dr Aron’s you read earlier)
      Book 2, Yes Man- Danny Wallace – a story of meeting people.

      Please keep in touch as we would love to hear if this helps.

    • Perhaps there is a critical difference between
      – expressing a vulnerability, and
      – expressing a vulnerability and (too obviously) hoping for a bit of support?
      The first may indicate that you are not an emotional fortress, the second may come across as potentially demanding?

      BTW Surely the answer to “if you could have anyone for dinner dead or alive who would it be?” would be “well I’m not a cannibal, but if I absolutely had to have someone for dinner, it would probably be easier if they were dead”.

  8. IdenticalTwinge says:

    Very interesting read! Thanks for the recommendation and I appreciate your comment at Identical Twinge as well. Cheers!

  9. sudebaker says:

    Good post. I guess the question is: do we truly value face-to-face friendships as much in the wake of all our social media connections? And thanks for the follow 🙂

  10. shayxxx says:

    I enjoyed reading this insightful post. I’m very big on deep friendships and have made some awesome friends from just one conversation. On every of those occasions, the fact that we both exposed a little vulnerability instantly deepened the bond.

    *Now hitting the follow button* and thanks for the follow!

  11. dmjc2004 says:

    This article is AMAZING!!! I definitely hit the follow button. I’m certainly reblogging!

  12. dmjc2004 says:

    Reblogged this on Diary of a Gay Person of Color and commented:
    For those of you struggling to make good friendships, read this article. A little bit of self-disclosure and vulnerability shows people we’re human and worth getting to know more!

  13. This is a good post. Thank you for checking out my blog as well.

  14. juliefroberg says:

    I agree that authenticy is the best practice in life. People see who you really are and it eliminates the disappointment that comes late if you were trying to behave acceptably for them.

  15. L. Marie says:

    Love this blog! It’s like reading Malcolm Gladwell. (And I mean that in a good way. I love his books.)

  16. mary says:

    I really like the concept of being vulnerable as an attractive trait. Perhaps it is our fear of the pain of rejection (which according to your post is now proven to be just like it feels- similar to being punched in the gut) that prevents our putting our true selves forward when we meet someone thus perpetuating the incorrect behavior of “putting our best foot forward”. Do you think that is why true friendships take real time to develop, so we can learn one another’s foibles and faults?

  17. Thank you for the comment. After looking at this study, we think time is irrelevant! The bonds made in this test, and others when replicated, show that you can make deep meaningful friends in no time at all!

  18. Great article and yes, self-disclosure can certainly bring people closer…it’s always a good idea, however, to disclose things you have dealt with before rather than issues you may be a bit fragile with still.

  19. ohsehunexo16 says:

    Reblogged this on ♫ ♬ ♪ ♩♫ ♬ ♪ For All K-Pop Lovers ♫ ♬ ♪ ♩♫ ♬ ♪ and commented:
    Annyeonghaseyo… ^O^

  20. Evie Garone says:

    Nice article……thanks for reading my blog and for following me! 🙂

  21. relating with people looks easy but sometimes it is not too easy. thanks for the follow

  22. patgarcia says:

    I enjoyed reading your article. I am a C.S. Lewis fan and what he says about friendship, I agree with one hundred percent.
    Thanks also for stopping by my blog and I look forward to following and reading more of yours.

  23. Benjamin says:

    Very interesting read, especially about the similarity of psychological and physical pain. A few years ago, I got my jaw broken in four places (long story), but oddly enough, I found the whole recovery process blissful because it took my mind off of my emotional struggles. As westerners, most of us don’t experience physical pain like those in third world countries, but our psychological pain sure does leave us hurting. Lol. Anyway, interesting article. Thanks for sharing, and thanks for both liking and following my blog. I’ll look for forward to more good posts from you!

  24. BroadBlogs says:

    I guess we feel closer to others when they open themselves up to us. And if you’re revealing imperfection you’re really open just awaiting the compassion of another.

  25. The quote by C.S. Lewis and the first part of the blog gave me tingles…my friendships and relationships are vastly important and I put a lot of effort into them. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

  26. Wonderful to see this scientifically proven! I definitely find this to be true in my own life. Great work and thanks for following my Tinkerbell blog!

  27. Pingback: Friendship | Is Your Brain On?

  28. johnlmalone says:

    a thought provoking blog as over the last two years I have lost a close friend but gained another though not as close ; I am alert to acquiring friends and thanks btw for following my blog

  29. kddidit says:

    I love the idea of Reality Swipe, and I would like to make a suggestion offline. Please contact me at kathydavie-AT-me-DOT-COM.

  30. helmling says:

    Really interesting…I was thinking as I read this about the role reciprocality plays in forming bonds. I’m trying to remember an article I read somewhere about fairness and chimp behavior that feels relevant, but I’d have to dig it up to make sure I’m not stretching the implications of that study too far.

  31. > They concluded that this connection is based not just on reciprocal self-disclosure – Being vulnerable with each other – but on gradually escalating reciprocal self-disclosure.

    Yep. That’s how AA works. It’s also why they call sleeping with a fellow AA-er “the thirteenth step.” 🙂

    (I’m not in AA, but someone close to me is.)

  32. lubkin2013 says:

    Very good blog! I have a few good friends, but dozens upon dozens of acquaintances. I suppose the difference must be how much time you allocate to an interaction?

  33. Thanks for following! And thanks for the research backing 😉 I was aware of the friendship- pain- brain relationship, but not the work on escalating vulnerable self disclosure! I wonder what effect that has on zee brain?
    I actually think this is one of the ingredients that makes MBSR such a powerful meditation practice..
    Thanks for your work!
    Extending friendship,

  34. Michael says:

    nice piece 🙂

  35. trisha proud says:

    Wow really insightful, intresting stuff! Love the Oscar Wilde quote!

  36. BroadBlogs says:

    Good to know! Thanks.

  37. Michael says:

    Nice one 🙂 Pleas visit my site for the details of your nomination for the SUPER SWEET BLOGGING AWARD. Congratulations 🙂

  38. jonthm9 says:

    A 150 W 40 kHz (HIUS) device only costs 16 UK pounds over the Internet. Will cure all cancers, heart disease and diabetes

  39. awryoutlook says:

    Fascinating reading and thanks for the follow.

  40. Pingback: The Science of Friendship « WORDVIRUS

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