These days, we're awash in friendship. Apps such as Facebook and Instagram allow us to keep up with third-grade pals, colleagues from old jobs and vast numbers of other people. But many "friends" on social media represent superficial connections, lacking the support and strength of closer bonds. You might be comfortable sharing photos of parties and vacations with your broader network, but you probably hesitate to post during more trying times — the breakup, the tough month at work or the death of a loved one. During hard times, you might instead turn to a few trusted friends to weather stress and sadness.
Strong friendships are a precious resource, but scientists know surprisingly little about them. In particular, it's difficult to predict what about a person makes it likely that they will attract close friends or be viewed as a close friend by others. In a new study, we explored this question by mapping the ties between community members and measuring the personalities within those communities.
We surveyed college freshmen who had moved into dorms a few weeks before: brand-new adults building brand-new social circles.
We first gathered information about each dorm member's personality. How happy are they? How extroverted? How empathic? We then asked students to nominate other dorm members whom they sought out in different circumstances. Whom do they hang out with, ask for advice or turn to during difficult times?
These nominations allowed us to visualize dorms' social networks — dense webs of young relationships — and to test who ended up in the middle of these networks: central, connected and popular.
We found that different types of freshmen became popular in different ways. When choosing whom they enjoyed spending time with, people gravitated toward happy dorm-mates. But when indicating whom they confide in, people selected dorm-mates high in empathy, the ability to share and understand others' emotions. Especially when things got tough, freshmen turned to their most empathic neighbors first. They trusted them with intimacy and vulnerability, the ingredients of deep friendship.
The transition to college is not an easy one for freshmen. They face new academic and social challenges, typically while separated from their family for the first time. Freshmen too often fall prey to stress, mood disorders and substance abuse. Our work suggests that connecting with empathic friends can buoy them amid difficult times.
It also offers a message about how to best cultivate close friendships.
On social media, people tend to advertise how well things are going for them. We post pictures of vacations with friends or joyous times with smiling children, not grinding days at work or toddler tantrums. By projecting happiness, we might make ourselves more likable and enjoyable to be around, and attract lots of acquaintances.
But our research suggests that if you want to build closer, more-sustaining bonds, empathy is a better place to start. By sharing others' experiences and showing that you care, you can connect more deeply and create a circle of close and trusted friends.
Importantly, people can build their empathy and learn to connect with others through practice. This suggests that we can work to become the type of friend other people choose to trust.
It also provides a potential avenue for generating more-meaningful connections in our lives and combating loneliness. More people live by themselves now than ever, and loneliness has risen steadily across the decades.
Our work suggests that if individuals focus on feeling and showing empathy, they might be able to combat isolation by building deep, lasting friendships. And if communities focus on cultivating empathy together, they might create networks of trust that can sustain them during good times and protect them during life's storms.
Zaki is a Stanford University professor of psychology and director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab. Morelli is a University of Illinois at Chicago professor of psychology and director of the Empathy and Social Connection Lab.