Friendships are surprisingly asymmetrical

We consistently misperceive the strength of reciprocity in our friendships and it significantly affects our social influence.

Awkward hug (image source: The Score)

Buddies, mates, pals, amigos — all terms we use to refer to our friends. The people we can rely on to be there for us and with us, in bad times and in good. The feeling is mutual. It’s reciprocated. We’d give them the shirt off our back and they’d happily give up theirs. Or would they?

A fascinating piece of research by Almaatouq et. al. — ‘Are You Your Friends’ Friend? Poor Perception of Friendship Ties Limits the Ability to Promote Behavioral Change’ — explored the prevalence of true reciprocity in friendships. Their results were not what you might expect.

As well as showing that “the directionality of friendship ties affect the extent to which individuals can influence the behaviour of each other”, they found that:

“People are typically poor at perceiving the directionality of their friendship ties”

In other words, while you might give them the shirt off your back, they might reciprocate with a handshake at best. This is important for anyone designing interventions that leverage peer pressure for behaviour change, to quit smoking or lose weight for example. Almaatouq et. al. are not downplaying the role and power of friends in achieving behaviour change. Rather, they are saying that we don’t always know who our real friends are and that “the amount of influence exerted by individuals on their peers in unilateral friendship ties seems to be dependent on the direction of the friendship.”

The reciprocity and directionality of friendships can be predicted by what Almaatouq et. al. call Social Embeddedness: the extent to which their friendship circles overlap; and Social Centrality: the difference in their social hierarchical organizational status. In other words, if two people have many friends in common, their friendship is likely to be reciprocal. And, a person closer to the centre of a network is likely to wield influence over people further removed from the centre.

This is both interesting and important when we consider the more fragmented and fleeting nature of contemporary friendships. The world’s social models have evolved from ‘village-fixed’ to ‘global-fluid’ ones. You are unlikely to be reading this from the town in which you grew up. The people you hang out with now are probably different to those you hung out with a decade ago, or perhaps even last year. As such we are becoming less socially embedded and our position in our various social circles is constantly shifting relative to the centre.

This raises a couple of questions that are worth considering.

Firstly, how do the same rules apply in an organisational context? How well do we really know our colleagues and how reciprocal are our work relationships? In a highly organised and hierarchical environment, can true reciprocity be realised?

Secondly, what effect has social media had on our concept of friendship, where the word ‘friend’ is no longer just a noun, but also a verb: “let me friend you on Facebook”? Is liking or sharing a post of a Facebook friend a true sign of friendship? If they like yours back, is that reciprocity?

I’m reminded of a meme that flew around social media a couple of years ago. Something along the lines of:

Real friends don’t just like your stuff on Facebook, they show up to help you paint your house!