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A scientific look at the psychology of friendship

OSU Research Matters is a look inside the work of Oklahoma State University faculty, staff and students.

In this episode, Dr. Kenneth Sewell — the school's Vice President of Research — talks with Dr. Jaimie Krems to take a scientific look at the psychology of friendship and discuss the surprising answers to some of our biggest friendship questions.


SEWELL: From your perspective, what is a friend?

KREMS: Yeah, I mean, that's one of the really good questions in this literature — “What is a friend?” and “What do friends do for us?” — but if it came down to it, [it’s a] medium or long-term relationship with somebody that likes you, you like them and you both know how much you like and value each other.

SEWELL: Are there qualities in friends that make somebody a better friend. Is it just the nicer they are or the more they like me, or are there other qualities there?

KREMS: Well, people say that they want friends who are nice and trustworthy, and they don't want friends who were vicious. But in reality, it turns out if you look a little deeper people kind of like friends who were monsters, they just want their friends to be monsters to my enemy, for example.

SEWELL: So, more like an ally, In some way,

KREMS: Exactly like an ally. If you looked on a geopolitical level, allies and friends are pretty close.

SEWELL: So, how do you and your students actually study this? Do you just kind of walk out in the world and look what people do? How do you study this phenomenon?

KREMS: Hypotheses can come from anywhere. So, certainly you can do that. You could watch TV or read a good book. But once you develop a good hypothesis, then ideally you're going to figure out a way to study that and get some numbers to it. So, our RAs and grad students will put together a survey, send that out in the U.S., India or maybe ask some psych students at OSU.

SEWELL: So, [they’re] able to study this phenomenon all over the world. Are there big, huge differences in cultures, across time, or are friends kind of friends forever?

KREMS: There can be some big differences across cultures, not so much across eras. But more or less, these things are pretty stable. Friendship is a human universal, is what we'd say.

SEWELL: Now, sometimes we hear about somebody being a jealous friend. I've read somewhere where you say that jealousy is not all bad. What do you mean by that?

KREMS: Yeah, jealousy gets a bad rap. So, I might feel jealous if I'm worried that I'm going to lose you, my best friend, to somebody else. And as much as it might be negative to feel that emotion, it can motivate some pretty positive behavior. So I might act in ways that help me hang on to you. Somebody that I love is my best friend.

SEWELL: So you might wind up keeping that close friend longer or when you are otherwise at risk of losing them?

KREMS: Exactly. That jealousy helps you hang on to friends.

SEWELL: Wow. I never, never thought of jealousy as something that might be good. You study this professionally, but I'm curious, does studying friendship make it harder or easier for you to have friends and be a friend?

KREMS: Social psychologists are pretty bad at being social. We often study what we can't do. So I think studying it makes it easier to try and figure out what in the heck is going on in the world.

SEWELL: So maybe some of the things that don't come naturally to you by way of studying it and understanding it, you can kind of do it on purpose.

KREMS: I mean, that would help. We're definitely an awkward bunch, and it would be nice to make more friends.

SEWELL: This is Kenneth Sewell, the vice-president for research at OSU with OSU Research Matters.

Dr. Sewell and Dr. Krems will be speaking more in depth on how to define a friend at 'Research On Tap' — Monday, Feb. 21 at Iron Monk Brewery in Stillwater. The informal discussion is open to the public and starts at 5:30 p.m. More information can be found at research.okstate.edu/rot.

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