Think of all the friendships in your life. Maybe you have a core group of close buddies and a lot of outer circle acquaintances, or perhaps you have a wide range of people whom you all call friends. Either way, research is revealing that we are not as connected to the pals in our lives as we think we are. In fact, half of our friends may not even like us.
If you have ever known someone to call you a bestie when they are not your cup of tea, or experienced unrequited feelings for a friend yourself, you have experienced this phenomenon. “People don’t like to hear that the people they think of as friends don’t name them as friends,” stated Alex Pentland, co-author of a recent study on friendship and computational social science researcher at M.I.T.
Friendship ties between 84 subjects in a business management class were studied through self-report. The participants ranked each other on a 1-5 scale of closeness, ranging from “I don’t know this person” to “One of my best friends.” The results showed that feelings were only mutual 53 percent of the time. The study’s authors argue that the discrepancy could exist because the very definition of friendship is so variable between people.
Thinking back to the different connections in your own life, you may have friends with whom you share deep, personal vulnerabilities, compared to the lighthearted conversation and mutual interest in hobbies with others. Each person defines friendship in different ways and each personality accommodates and prefers different types of connections.
We are also living in a time when the word “friends” refers to an arbitrary number on a Facebook page or is synonymous with “followers,” or an audience of unknown strangers. The New York Times reports on the risk of having too many shallow, nonreciprocal relationships possibly leading to physical troubles, including brain dysfunction.
Dr. Amy Banks, psychiatrist at Wellesley Centers for Women, explains the importance of the “smart” vagus nerve, which can be negatively affected by loneliness and feelings of isolation. Keeping this nerve tone is essential “because it modulates our instinctive fight, flight or freeze response,” she states. When around unfamiliar folks we feel anxious and this system kicks in, compared to when we are in the company of close friends with whom we feel comfortable and safe.
The takeaway from this research may be to put less investment in the labels we use to define our connections and to work on strengthening these connections, instead. Build trust, understanding and comfort with the people who show a genuine interest in being close with you and you will always be certain you have someone you can call a friend.