Measuring the Breadth of Friendship

[imgbelt img=u-of-l-champs-smithville530.jpg]A new study finds that in smaller-scale social environments, people are
more likely to befriend those who are different from themselves. How
many morticians and can-collectors do you know?


The scholars write, “When opportunity abounds, people are free to pursue more narrow selection criteria [in forming friendships], but when fewer choices are available, they must find satisfaction using broader criteria.”

And that’s just what we did. There were no people with backgrounds, interests, histories very much like ours in Smithville, and as a consequence we grew close to people of many different ages, occupations, and beliefs.

Bahns and her colleagues compared friendships among college students at the University of Kansas (with an enrollment over 25,000) with friendships at four smaller colleges (average enrollment of 1372 students) in eastern and central Kansas.  The researchers handed out questionnaires to pairs of students they found in public places – like the cafeteria or student union – asking them about their attitudes concerning a variety of social issues (like contraception and the death penalty), their behaviors (frequency of smoking and drinking, for example), their prejudices, and other matters.

Then they looked at the degree of similarity among the pairs of big-school friends and small-school friends.

“One might imagine that a small homogeneous community will lead people to form relationships
with others much like themselves, compared to a larger eclectic mix of people,” the scholars wrote. They discovered similarity to be an important criterion for friendship in both campus settings, but they also found an “irony”: in smaller social universes, where the total population is less diverse, people tended to form friendships with others less like themselves.

“Because people from the larger university will be able to choose among greater variety, they will also be able to match their interests and activities to partners more closely than individuals in the smaller colleges. This leads to a straightforward but ironic hypothesis,” they wrote. “Greater human diversity within an environment will lead to less personal diversity within dyads” (human pairs).

“Social ecology” and its power to shape human relationships strikes us an exciting field of research, of special interest to those of us trying to understand what, for good and ill, characterizes life in rural places.

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