Relax, we’re not all mean girls. A new study from MIT has been making recent headlines that suggest our “friends” don't actually like, or consider, us as friends at all. While the study did find some troubling statistics regarding how we perceive our friendships, the results are significantly less Machiavellian than you might expect.
The authors of the study examined friendships in terms of directionality, meaning how the relationship progresses in terms of things like reciprocity and social influence. We all crave friendships in which the action is reciprocal: phone calls exchanged, shoulders to cry on, soup when you're sick. Additionally, we all desire a certain degree of social influence as well.
For the study, 84 students were asked to score how well they knew their peers in an undergraduate course. The scale ranged from 0 to 5, 0 meaning the student didn’t know the other at all, 5 meaning a best friend. Next, participants were asked to rate how well their peers knew them.
Most people believe those they consider friends will also consider them friends, an example of reciprocity. Unfortunately, the results found only about half of friendships are found to be reciprocal, meaning we’re getting ourselves into a lot of one-sided friendships.
So what gives?
Social climbing, the quest for social prestige and influence, is likely the case. In terms of social psychology, one core motivating factor to establish a social relationship is to enhance potential social gain. It protects a person from being shunned from a group, which in more primitive eras could mean the difference between living in a community or foraging alone, while also establishing a certain level of control for those at the top.
There’s a reason people wanted to be friends with the popular girls in high school. Yes, they had the cool parties. Sure, they had the trendiest clothes. And if you were lucky, maybe they were actually fun. But a primary reason popular people have so many friends is because they’re already popular. They have the luxury to be selective when it comes to who’s allowed in their inner circle. People with lower social standing may claim to be friends with someone with a higher social standing, but that may be an effort to ascend the social ladder. It’s opportunistic, to be certain, but it can be found in the dynamics of many relationships.
Take “The Breakfast Club” for example. The students were thrust into neutral territory within the setting of detention that helped facilitate reciprocal friendships. For that afternoon, they were all in it together. The students were aware of each other’s social identities -- princess, jock, criminal, basketcase, nerd -- but the titles were rendered meaningless because none of them had anything to socially lose, or gain, during the detention time spent together. Placed within this setting, the pressure to achieve social influence was eliminated, allowing for bonds based on reciprocity to develop. (Of course, we don't know how long these friendships lasted after they left their neutral setting—explored in the classic "what happens on Monday?" scene.)
“Mean Girls” is an example of social climbing and destruction. The relationship between Cady Heron and the Plastics had no basis for friendship whatsoever. Regina George smelled the scent of competition, and Cady had an underhanded plan with Janis Ian to shame George and her fellow plastics. None of these friendships had the hopeful glimmer of reciprocity or meaningfulness because that was never part of the foundation of the “friendships.” They all wanted the same thing, which was for the other members of the social circle to be kept or taken down.
Luckily “Mean Girls” is an extreme case, but a warning to the folly of selfishness, ego and puerile grasps at control. The MIT study suggests not that we have fundamentally shallow or malicious motives at friendships, but rather a flawed sense of assessing who is, or actually should, be considered a friend. Maybe all the cool and popular girls do have the fun, but the research suggests it might be lonely at the top.