The friends we make often define a large portion of our lives. We spend countless hours in the company of our friends, we learn from them and with them, and we depend on them for support and comfort. Friendships constitute a major factor in our lifetimes, so let’s take a look at the psychology behind friendship and the evolution of it as we age.
Social psychologists define friendship as a voluntary and reciprocated bond between two people. Unlike many of the other relationships we form in our lifetimes, friendships are equal. Family typically provides us with the first foundation of norms and social behavior, but friends serve to further those understandings. Friendships also offer a rewarding basis for living and, according to some thoughts of social psychology, serve as an anchor for an individual’s personal cognition of the “outside” world, meaning that friends remind us that we exist and matter to the world¹.
Many social psychologists also agree that while perceived similarity is initially important in forming friendships, it becomes much less so and as a friendship persists, self-concept support becomes a much more important factor in maintaining that friendship². Perceived similarity can include things like socioeconomic status, intellect, hobbies and interests, and cultural backgrounds. These things can be factors that people initially look for in forming friendships.
However, as the relationship progresses, self-concept support will determine whether the friendship will continue to develop or fade away³. Self-concept refers to our own perceptions of our behavior, intelligence, and characteristics— it’s basically what you think of yourself. In order for a friendship to flourish, social psychologists believe that both individuals must support each other’s self-concept, and to some degree, agree with each other’s assessment of themselves.
Early childhood friendships are typically characterized by playing together and sharing toys. Observational studies of preschool children playing together found that preschoolers who identified each other as “friends” would have more social contact with each other and fewer occurrences of fighting or arguing when compared to interactions with “nonfriends⁴.” Even young children express feelings of sadness or loneliness when a friend moves away or no longer plays with them⁵.
The most common characteristic that children look for in their potential friends tends to be surface-level similarities⁶. For example, two children might become friends over a shared favorite color or because they both like to play with the same toy. Generally speaking, most friendships formed in early and mid-childhood are between same-sex children.
Recent research has also found that the quality of friendships is important to the social success of children in early childhood. Children with many high-quality friends may have fewer shy or withdrawn tendencies and are often more confident and more likely to make more friends⁷.
Friends in Adolescence
Friendships formed in adolescence are typically closer and more developed than those formed in childhood, partly due to factors like growth in self-concept and increased freedom from parents⁸. Close friendships are also formed as we move away from confiding and relying as heavily on our parents and transition into seeking companionship and support from our peers. Adolescent friends also tend to be more specialized, for example, having specific friends from school and different friends from a sports team. Observational studies have also seen an increase in opposite-sex friendships when compared to childhood.
Some social psychologists also believe that friendships in adolescence transcend into a genuine concern for each other’s wellbeing. The occurrence of having a friend’s wellbeing be essential to your own sense of wellbeing is a sign of social maturity⁹.
Studies have found that when people get married or commit to long-term relationships, both men and women seem to pull away from friendships. Middle-aged adults, on average, have fewer friends than college students or young adults¹⁰. The friends we tend to make in college are usually the least similar to ourselves, which is partially attributed to the increase in the volume of people we interact with during that phase¹¹. However, adult friendships are typically more homogeneous, with factors like age, race, and social status being more similar across friends.
Adult friendships tend to have the most equal balance of same-sex and opposite-sex friends. Studies have found that men and women look for different traits in their opposite-sex friends, with women favoring economic status and physical prowess in their male friends and men favoring physical attractiveness in their female friends¹². However, both men and women prioritize agreeableness and dependability as important traits for same-sex friends.
Across all genders and ages, one factor remains constant: the role of a friend is something you must choose to maintain. Friendship is something that takes effort and initiative, so think about the last time you’ve talked to your friends and maybe give them a call or text to remind them that you love and appreciate them.
1. Albert, R. S. & Brigante, T. R. (1962). The Psychology of Frienship Relations: Social Factors. The Journal of Social Psychology, 56(1), 33-47, doi:10.1080/00224545.1962.9919371.
4. Bukowski, W., Newcomb, A. F., Hartup, W. W. (1996). The Company They Keep: Friendship in Childhood and Adolescence. Cambridge UniversityPress.
7. Berndt, T. J. (2002). Friendship Quality and Social Development. Current Directions in Psychological Science, doi.org/10.1111/1467-8721.00157.
8. Bukowski et al. (1996).
9. Youniss, J. & Haynie, D. L. (1992). Friendship in Adolescence. Journal of Development & Behavioral Pediatrics, doi:10.1097/00004703-199202000-00013.
10. Developmental Psychology: Social Development: Friendship. Psychology Research and Reference.