By Jessica Ayers, Jaimie Krems, & Keelah Williams
We often focus our finite time, interest, and even research energy on mating and kin relationships rather than friendships. But across evolutionary history, friends have provided important benefits and helped us solve recurrent adaptive problems. For example, our ancestors’ friends helped them acquire resources, gain status, win social conflicts, attract and retain mates, and so forth. Further, friends help us when we are in need (and unlikely to receive help from strangers). As our time and energy to devote to these relationships is finite—it takes some 200 hours to make a close friend—we must choose in which friend(s) to invest our time and energy.
The qualities possessed by various friends can help us make these prioritization decisions. We invest in friends who have the qualities we most like. But what qualities do we look for in our friends?
Past work suggests that both men and women seek friends who are trustworthy, similar, familiar, generous, and who like us. Just as in work on romantic relationships, then, the qualities that men and women most want in partners are the same—even if there are some predicted, notable sex differences. But because there’s been much less of a research focus on friendship, we know less about the predicted, possibly notable sex differences in what people want in friends. That’s where we focused.
Building on previous work investigating evolved friend preferences, we reasoned that the nature and priority of the adaptive challenges (that friends help to solve) have been somewhat different for men and for women, and so some of the qualities that men and women value in friends might also be differently prioritized—again, even as many of the qualities men and women cherish in friends are the same.
In a series of three studies, we investigated (1) people’s preferences for ideal friends, (2) the actual qualities possessed by people’s real-life best friends, and (3) people’s prioritization when given a limited “friend budget” to spend on different qualities.
In Study 1, we asked 213 U.S. undergraduates to imagine an ideal same-sex friend and rate how important it was that this ideal friend possessed various qualities—qualities we created to reflect eleven different categories of adaptive problems. Men, as compared to women, more so reported that they wanted their ideal friend to be wealthy, have high status, provide access to potential mates, and be physically formidable. Women, as compared to men, more so reported that they wanted their ideal friend to provide emotional support, prioritize the friendship, help protect their romantic relationships, be an ally during conflicts, and provide useful social information. (We found no sex difference in the extent to which men and women valued ideal friends who actively tried to build their friendship networks or had unique skills/expertise.)
In Study 2, we aimed to assess how these preferences changed when participants reported on their actual same-sex best friend. We asked 306 U.S. adults to report the extent to which their real-life best friend possessed these traits. We largely replicated the results of Study 1. Men reported that their same-sex best friends were more likely to be wealthy, provide access to potential mates, and be physically formidable compared to women’s same-sex best friends. Women reported that their same-sex best friends were more likely to provide emotional support, help protect their romantic relationships, and be an ally during conflicts compared to men’s same-sex best-friends. (We again found no sex differences in the extent to which men and women reported that their same-sex best friend actively tried to build their friendship network or had unique skills/expertise.) However, we did not replicate the sex differences in status, prioritizing the friendship, and providing useful social information found in Study 1.
“We find that whereas men and women both benefit from friends with certain qualities (e.g., trustworthiness, intelligence), there have also been some recurrent, sex-specific challenges that men’s and women’s same-sex friendships helped to solve.”
In Study 3, we conducted a complementary assessment of friendship preferences using a self-report paradigm adapted from behavioral economics—the budget allocation paradigm, wherein participants are given finite budgets to spend on friendship qualities to create their ideal same-sex friend. When men and women are given large budgets from which to create their friends, we hypothesized that they would create similar ideal friends: When there is no constraint on the positive qualities an ideal friend can possess, people should want it all. When budgets are constrained, however, men and women are forced to prioritize the qualities they deem most important. We asked 250 U.S. adults to create their ideal friend using this paradigm. Looking at those choices under constrained budgets, we found that women, compared to men, (again) prioritized having a friend who provided emotional support and that men, compared to women, prioritized having a friend who had high status and provided access to potential mates.
We find that whereas men and women both benefit from friends with certain qualities (e.g., trustworthiness, intelligence), there have also been some recurrent, sex-specific challenges that men’s and women’s same-sex friendships helped to solve. By considering these pressures, future research can begin to investigate aspects of friendship—and, here, what we want in friends—that we can reasonably expect to be somewhat sex differentiated, such as the similarities and differences in how men and women maintain or terminate their friendships.
Read the paper: Sex differences in friendship preferences