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You know less about your friends than you think

Are you going to be spending part of the weekend with friends?

How well do you know them? I mean, really know them.

Our knowledge of the beliefs, opinions and ethical attitudes of our friends  — even our close friends — is a lot sketchier than we think, according to a recent article in the Boston Globe.

Notes Globe reporter Drake Bennett:

A growing body of experimental evidence suggests that, on the whole, we know significantly less about our friends, colleagues, and even spouses than we think we do…. [W]e’re often completely wrong about their likes and dislikes, their political beliefs, their tastes, their cherished values. We lowball the ethics of our co-workers; we overestimate how happy our husbands or wives are.

What is the most common mistake people make about their friends? They assume their friends agree with them on particular issues when they actually don’t, according to researchers studying social networking for the search engine Yahoo! This projection (the psychological term) happens even among people who regularly talk politics with their friends.

Another yet-to-be-published study, Drake reports, found that people unquestioningly — and mistakenly, it turned out — assumed their friends would share their responses to various ethical dilemmas. “Strikingly,” says Drake, “it was the more socially connected among the test subjects who were more likely to be wrong.”

Still, as Drake notes, our blantant blindness to our friends’ true views and opinions “is not all grim.”

Other researchers argue that people are pretty good at seeing at least the building blocks of their friend’s personalities. And in certain realms, like judging intelligence and creativity, there’s evidence that our friends are actually more perceptive about us than we are, if only because any illusions they may have about us are dwarfed by the illusions we have about ourselves.


Anyway, it may not matter what illusions you have about your friends — or they about you. Earlier this year, a sociologist reported findings that suggest we replace about half of our friends every seven years or so.

Something to ponder at your social gatherings this weekend.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by John Toren on 08/15/2009 - 06:35 pm.


    The data upon which this report is base may well be solid, but it merely reiterates a truth that is already well-known, and has served as an underpinning of game shows for decades. Meanwhile, I’m afraid the researchers missed two other findings of far greater interest. A more comprehensive study would undoubtedly have shown that we know less, not only about our friends, but about everything, than we think we do. We are all masters of reiterating theories and discoveries (like the one in the Globe) that we half-remember from newspaper reports and radio interviews. Pressed for details or elaboration, we’re likely to stammer a bit and then say, “Why not tune in to the podcast and hear the whole thing?”

    But this isn’t really news either. Didn’t Socrates, the Athenian gadfly, engage in dialogues twenty-five hundred years ago expressly designed to demonstrate that no one really knew what they were talking about?

    A more interesting notion brought to light by the study, and one that’s worthy of serious reflection, is that friendship is not really based on agreement or “solidarity.” We love our friends, not because of how they vote or where the food they eat was grown, but because of who they are. We love and admire them less for their specific views and habits than for their quirks of personality, their enthusiasms, their root values and their “heart.” Our friends in time become indelible features of our emotional landscape, which help us sustain the notion that the world is a sane and sacred place, though one thing we may come to love about them best is the food for discussion and dispute they provide as we gather around the cafe or conference table.

    By the same token, our depth of mutual affection makes it important that we proceed cautiously when delicate or controversial issues arise, lest we offend one another’s sensibilities. This is less a matter of evasion than of courtesy and tact.

    The thrust of the article in the Globe seems to be that we know less about our friends than we thing we do—therefore, we ought to be wary, if not genuinely afraid. This is a dumb and dreadful attitude to espouse, which reflects an utter lack of familiarity with what friendship feels like. It isn’t a matter of hanging around with people who signed the same petitions we did.

    In his pithy study, Civilization and Violence, Amartya Sen remarks that “a solidarist approach can be a good way of misunderstanding nearly everyone in the world.”

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