The Psychology of Friendship

On the three levels of friendship and understanding social personality patterns according to friendship styles.

With social networking the very crux of modern virtual living, it is simply not possible to avoid a psychology of friendship. But friendship may not be as simple as it seems as it has got several layers and complexities and friendship can be of many types. Yet friendship like love depends on the single factor of attraction and in this case, it is more of a mental and emotional rather than physical attraction. So when romantic love begins with physical attraction, friendship is more mental, emotional or psychological.

Among maybe thousands of students we meet in school or a few hundred we meet at the workplace, we finally become close and attain a level of friendship with very few or limited people. So like love, friendship also goes through our internal filter and as we choose our lovers unconsciously, even our friends are chosen unconsciously as we intuitively understand who could be our true friends.

Apart from the fact that there is this unconscious and intuitive filter which we exercise when we choose our friends or lovers, we also do get consciously attracted to people with whom we develop long lasting relationships and friendships. This attraction could be sexual but most likely we are attracted to the personality, to someone whose personal style, mannerisms and attitudes seem fascinating, intriguing or simply similar. There could be a narcissistic theory to this as we choose friends who may look, talk or think like we do and usually there is this mental rapport from the very beginning. Just as love could happen at first sight, friendship could also begin with ‘like’ at first sight.

Now this liking could have several gradations and in some cases you would simply like to remain as contact as in social networking. You simply follow a person on twitter or add someone as friend on face book because there is this basic or unconscious liking or at least a realization that there could be some gain from the virtual relationship. However this is the first superficial layer of friendship just as you would smile at or share a piece of news with a complete stranger in a train without ever keeping in touch or meeting again. This sort of friendship is the ‘random friendship’ variety.

Most of your social network friends who you do not know would be such random friends and strangers who you meet once and share a random conversation in a flight or a train or a bus would also be such random friends. This is the first layer or stage of friendship and in most cases we do not go beyond this stage. Most people we meet in our lives would be such random friends. This is a friendship of no expectations on both sides. This sort of friendship fulfils our basic social interaction and communication needs. Say for example, you give a speech at a conference and some people ask you questions and you answer them, to you these are your listeners but in this basic interaction there is a sense of rapport and almost an initial level of friendship. These, your listeners who choose to communicate with you are your random friends and they fulfil your interaction and communication needs.

The next stage of friendship is the distal friendship stage is which there is some unconscious or conscious expectation from the friendship and there may be a conscious sexual or emotional attraction. This sort of friendship is with people you regularly communicate with and you are also most likely interested in their activities. Distal friends are people you may or may not meet but are people with whom you want to maintain a long term and meaningful relationship and in most cases you have some knowledge of what goes on in their social or personal lives. This is the second level of friendship and second type of friendship and although there is expectation from this sort of relation, there may not be any clear idea as to what expectations there are. You simply know that you want to remain in touch with such friends and they are more than just contacts. These friends fulfil our power and recognition needs as with such friends we are assured that there are people in the world who care about us and are interested in our lives, dreams and achievements.

The third stage and type of friendship is of close proximal variety and this is the friendship between family members, close school friends, close workmates and friendship between spouses and lovers. In this sort of friendship there could be many expectations and there is sometimes an intuitive emotional connection. The initial reason for friendship could be physical attraction as in spouses or simply emotional connection as with family members or there could be a shared life and shared physical activity as in case of school or work friends. The close or proximal friends would know most details of your life and this sort of friendship entails expectations of sharing which may or may not be realistically possible. For example if sons and daughters leave home to work or study abroad, the parents who are still close friends would expect that their children would talk to them every week and this may not always be feasible. These close or proximal friends or stage of friendship fulfils our basic security, love and safety needs.

Thus from these stages or types of friendship you would know that the most essential types of friends are the close friends followed by distal friends and then random friends. Some individuals have more random friends than others and are thus of outgoing extroverted personality. These individuals are generally more curious about the world, have leadership are more open and communicative, they are also possibly very creative. However their primary needs are for social interaction and communication.

The second type of individual has more distal friends or social contacts with whom they are neither too close nor are they completely aloof. Such individuals have a wide range of social contacts with expectations but few random contacts and they are of mixed extroverted-introverted personality pattern. That means on a scale of 10, their extroversion would be 5 to 7. The primary need for such individuals is power or recognition. Of course this could have varied possibilities as with public or social figures and personalities such as writers, actors or politicians, there will naturally be more random contacts, yet as natural preference some public personalities will prefer social recognition as opposed to social communication. This preference is the basis of their social personality and would define the kind of friendship they choose to have.

The third type of individual is completely introverted and these are poets or artists or simply individuals who like to work on their own and lean heavily on their close network of friends and family members. Such individuals may have limited social contacts and very few random contacts and may not enjoy leadership positions. In some cases their introversion or aloofness would overshadow any leadership skills they do have. Such individuals could be very creative as well but this creativity may lead to complex ideas and highlight the subjective. In this case close friendship which fulfils love, safety and security needs are the primary needs of such individuals and such individuals are more emotion and security, or home and family oriented rather than communication or recognition oriented. From these three friendship patterns it is possible to delineate these three types of social personality based on social interactions.

Of course at the moment this is popular psychology and very little research in social psychology has studied levels of friendship, friendship in social networking or friendship styles that could relate to personality. Yet in the future psychology would not be able to avoid such research and with increased importance of social networking and virtual friendship, psychology will have to study how friendships are formed, why certain people become our friends and why different levels of friendship are attained with different individuals. Although there are theories on friendship and group formation in children, more studies into adult relationship formation and friendship would be necessary in psychology. Research studies will also have to be conducted to determine whether people with more random friends are ever curious creative types seeking communication and whether people with more distal friends and fewer random friends seek power and achievement and whether introverted individuals primarily lean on emotional security. With increased technological possibilities and an ever connected world, friendship remains a very fertile area of study in the social sciences.