What makes someone a perfect friend? Here’s what new research says

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A recent study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships offers new insights into what qualities we prioritize in our friends. The research finds that traits such as loyalty, reliability, trustworthiness, and honesty are deemed essential, or necessities, in friendships. Meanwhile, traits like being forgiving, sharing information, emotional intelligence, and conscientiousness about debts are considered luxuries, not essential but desirable.

Throughout history, from Aristotle to modern thinkers, the nature of friendship has been a subject of philosophical and psychological inquiry. Knowing which traits people value in friends can help researchers understand the benefits and functions of these relationships beyond mere companionship, particularly in terms of evolutionary advantages such as survival and well-being.

“I have been interested in friendship preferences since it is such an understudied area,” said study author Jessica (Jessi) D. Ayers, an assistant professor of psychological science at Boise State University. “Most traditional social psychology theories have pointed to similarity, familiarity, and physical proximity as the primary drivers of friendship initiation, and it has only been in the last 10-20 years that researchers have begun to consider individual differences in preferences that may influence who we want to become friends with.”

To identify which traits are seen as essential (necessities) and which are viewed as desirable but not essential (luxuries) in friendships, the researchers conducted two separate studies.

The first study included individuals, mostly undergraduate students, from a large public university in the Southwestern United States and employed a budget paradigm, an economic-based methodology designed to simulate decision-making under resource constraints.

Participants were tasked with creating their “perfect” friend using a hypothetical budget. Each was given a set number of “friendship tokens,” which they could allocate among various traits to enhance these characteristics in their ideal friend. These traits included loyalty, reliability, trustworthiness, honesty, forgiveness, information sharing, emotional intelligence, and conscientiousness about repaying debts.

A key aspect of this method is its use of different budget levels to mimic economic constraints: low, medium, and high. Participants assigned to the low budget condition had to make tough choices about which traits were truly essential, as their limited tokens forced them to prioritize. Conversely, those in the high budget condition could afford to invest in both necessary and luxury traits, providing a contrast to reveal which traits are luxuries.

The researchers found that traits such as loyalty, reliability, trustworthiness, and honesty emerged as fundamental necessities in friendship. These are the traits participants prioritized heavily even under financial constraints, suggesting their non-negotiable status in what constitutes a vital aspect of a friend.

On the other hand, traits like forgiveness, information sharing, emotional intelligence, and conscientiousness about repaying debts were categorized as luxuries. These traits were selected more frequently by participants who had more tokens to spend, indicating that while such traits are desirable, they are not considered essential for the friendship to exist.

The second study replicated and extended the findings of the first by employing a forced-choice paradigm with a larger sample of 449 participants. This method was designed to probe the hierarchical nature of trait preferences more deeply than the budget paradigm could.

In this study, participants faced forced-choice scenarios where they had to choose between two combinations of friend traits. Each scenario pitted different necessity traits against each other, luxury traits against each other, and necessity traits against luxury traits. This approach allowed researchers to observe which traits were consistently chosen over others, thus indicating their relative importance and confirming the necessity-luxury distinction.

For instance, a typical choice might involve deciding between a friend who is always loyal but never reliable versus a friend who is always reliable but never loyal. This method highlights which traits participants value most when directly compared, thus providing insights into the hierarchical ordering of trait preferences within the categories of necessities and luxuries.

The results from the forced-choice scenarios supported those of the budget paradigm, where necessity traits were consistently chosen over luxury traits. This consistency across different methodological approaches adds robustness to the findings, reinforcing the distinction between essential and non-essential friendship traits.

“Friendships — how we make them, what we look for, and how we maintain them — are a lot more complex than meets the eye,” Ayers told PsyPost. “We are only just beginning to understand all of the decisions that people have to make when they decide whether to initiate or maintain a friendship with another person.”

Interestingly, the study revealed minimal differences between male and female participants in their trait preferences, suggesting a general consensus across genders regarding what is fundamentally necessary versus luxurious in friendships.

“One of the biggest surprises was the lack of sex differences,” Ayers said. “Most theories of friendship have suggested that there should be sex differences in friendships/friendship preferences since men and women have faced different adaptive problems over the course of human history. Sex differences have even been shown in some previous work that I used as the basis for this investigation.”

But the study, like all research, has limitations. Its participant pool was largely collegiate, potentially skewing the applicability of its findings across different age groups and cultural backgrounds. Additionally, all traits were considered in isolation, detached from the dynamic real-world interactions that typically influence friendship formations.

“The lack of sex differences suggests there may be a major caveat to these findings,” Ayers noted. “It is possible that we did not observe any sex differences because we asked participants about their preferences for positive traits in potential friends. Since everyone can benefit from these traits, it makes sense then that we would not see sex differences in these traits but might still observe them in traits that are more differentiated by adaptive problem. It is also possible that there really aren’t sex difference in preferences, but where these sex differences actually exist is in the ways that individuals display that they possess these traits.”

The researchers suggest future studies could expand demographic inclusivity and examine how friendship trait preferences evolve over a person’s lifetime. Future research could also aim to recreate more complex social contexts to test these preferences more authentically.

“My long term goals are to continue understanding preferences in friendship initiation and maintenance, to eventually understand if violations of these preferences leads to friendship dissolution or if the story surrounding dissolution is also more complex,” Ayers said.

The study, “How do you build the perfect friend? Evidence from two forced-choice decision-making experiments,” was authored by Jessica D. Ayers, Jaimie Arona Krems, and Athena Aktipis.

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