Social Science: Friendship at First Sight

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Social Science: Friendship at First Sight

The concept of love at first sight is the subject of sonnets and songs dating back centuries, and remains a popular trope in rom-coms and on television. But what about “friendship at first sight?”

Researchers Kelly Campbell, Nicole Holderness, and Matt Riggs at California State University at San Bernardino published a paper Chemistry.pdf called “Friendship chemistry: An examination of underlying factors.” They explain that friendship chemistry is a subcategory of relationship chemistry, which also includes the more-often discussed and studied sexual attraction, and of course “love at first sight.”

“The few researchers who examine this construct focus on sexual, rather than friendship chemistry,” they write. “Given that a person is likely to partake in a greater number of friendships versus romantic relationships over a lifetime, a thorough exploration of the factors involved in friendship formation, such as chemistry, is essential to this body of work.”

Their goal in this research was to determine what exactly friendship chemistry is, and what causes it. Participants in the study were presented with this definition of friendship chemistry: “Friendship chemistry refers to an instant connection between friends that is easy and makes the relationship seem natural.” They were then asked whether they had ever experienced this immediate, platonic spark. The study focused in on those who answered “yes,” trying to determine what causes the phenomenon. Participants were asked to evaluate the truthfulness of several statements—things like “I find my friend funny,” “I feel like I can trust my friend,” and “my friend and I share similar values”—in regards to their relationship with a person they feel they had immediate friendship chemistry with.

They learned that women are more likely to report friendship chemistry than men—and attribute this to the ways that women are socialized to connect with their emotions and intuitions, while men are socialized to suppress them. Researchers also found that the people most likely to experience immediate connection are those with “agreeable, open, and conscientious personalities.” People are also more likely to be positively inclined toward those who they believe feel the same way toward them, and toward people who are recognizably similar to themselves.

The authors of this study claim that it’s the first to take a comprehensive look at opinions of friendship chemistry, and call it “one step closer” to a full understanding of what makes people connect (and why some people have trouble connecting). Some limitations of this study, which the authors acknowledge, are that friendship may mean different things to different people, and that subjects were asked to evaluate their relationships retroactively. This means that their current relationship with the friends in common may color their recollection of their first impression. The paper concludes with a recommendation that this issue could be addressed in another study that assesses pairs of friends immediately after meeting, and follows them for a period of time.

Top photo by CC BY-ND 2.0

Lilly Dancyger is Deputy Editor of Narratively, and a freelance journalist based in New York City.