Whoever has a friend, has a treasure—that phrase might hold more truth than you’d think! In studying friendship, scientists have discovered shocking facts, like how we share more genes with friends than strangers, how we're more attractive when we're with a group of friends, or that at the age of nine months we already understand the concept of friendship.
In honor of our dear friends, we’ve compiled a list of 10 true facts about these relationships that you probably didn’t know. Here's science has to say about friendship.
1. MEN AND WOMEN CAN’T BE FRIENDS
Think you have a friend of the opposite sex? After reading this, you’ll think again. A study at the University of Wisconsin shows that friendship between men and women is a fairly recent phenomenon, and that it’s impossible to escape from moments of seduction and sexual tension.
"Little research has explored how men and women navigate platonic cross-sex friendships, which are presumed to involve neither sexual relations nor kin,” maintains April Bleske-Rechek, a psychologist and one of the directors of the study.
Scientists studied 88 friend couples of the opposite sex and concluded that men were more physically and sexually attracted to their female friends, and tended to overestimate how these women saw them.
2. ANIMALS HAVE FRIENDS, TOO!
Most YouTube videos featuring adorable pairs of animals from different species don’t meet scientists’ criteria for “friendship” (a long-lasting bond of sacrifice, shared moments and hurt after loss).
But several studies have shown that, at least between chimpanzees, baboons, horses, hyenas, elephants, bats and dolphins, animals can form friendships for life with individuals that aren’t from their species.
There’s even documented proof of a friendship between a centenarian turtle and a young hippopotamus in Kenya.
But why do animals form these bonds?
The most obvious answer is that friendship has certain benefits: in all the cases studied, friends had better health, less stress and more reproductive success.
This means that friendship is going to become a more and more common characteristic of the species, according to scientist Carl Zimmer.
3. FRIENDS TRIGGER OUR EMPATHY
The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is a key human characteristic, but with friends we take it to the next level.
A group at the University of Virginia studied brain scans from 22 different people who were under threat of receiving small electrical shocks to either themselves, a friend, or a stranger.
Scientists discovered that the brain activity of a person in danger, versus that when a friend is, is essentially the same.
“Our self comes to include who we become close to,” says James Coan, psychologist and director of the study.
“People close to us become a part of ourselves, and that is not just metaphor or poetry, it’s very real. Literally we are under threat when a friend is under threat,” he summarizes.
Coan relates this development to the issue of survival and similarity, which grows as you spend more time with someone.
“Humans come together to prosper. Our goals and resources are shared. If someone is threatening a friend, they’re threatening our resources and goals,” he believes.
4. FRIENDS WERE LIMITED ... UNTIL FACEBOOK
In 1993, anthropologist Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford extrapolated for humans the results he obtained studying primate social groups: every individual can only maintain up to 150 significant relationships at the same time.
Dunbar didn’t take into consideration the social network explosion, nor does he use any today, but he admits that technology could increase our memory capacity while increasing the number of friends we can have at the same time.
But the question now is – is accumulating relationships detrimental to closer friendship ties?
Will Reader, a Doctor in Psychology at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, notes that, although the majority of friendships start outside of the internet, the web can help us to keep up relationships that previously, because of long distance and lack of time, were lost.
Although, having said that, the majority of adults only have two best friends.
5. WE’RE JEALOUS AND WE GIVE WHAT WE GET
If someone considers you their best friend, you probably feel the same way, right?
A group of psychologists from the University of Pennsylvania has studied the friendship rankings offered by the social network MySpace and has concluded that value friends more that value us more.
"We’re jealous beings. How our friends value us and our relationship directly affects the friendship itself,” suggests Peter DeScioli, the coordinator of the study that throws out the traditional theory that friendship is just a mutual exchange of favors.
"If you think about friendships in terms of alliances, [...] one of the main things you’ll find about allies is that they are fundamentally jealous of each other.
"If Saudi Arabia is allies with the United States, it’s not just concerned about its relationship with the United States. It’s also concerned about the relationship that the United States has with other nations [...].
"In reciprocal or exchange relationships, [...] you just care about what you’re getting out of the relationship,” DeScioli explains, maintaining that friendship is created as a protection and advantage in times of conflict.
6. WORK FRIENDS MAKE YOU MORE PRODUCTIVE ... BUT BE CAREFUL!
Friendship and work can go hand in hand. Various studies have shown that having friends helps you find work and be more happy, creative, productive and competitive in the office. In countries like India and Indonesia, some have said that their work friends understand them better than their other friends—and even their spouse.
Still, you have to be careful, because at work not everyone is equal.
A friendship with your boss endangers not only your bond, but also your position and credibility in the office. The desire to climb the corporate ladder can destroy even closer relationships: according to a recent study by LinkedIn, 68% of people born after 1980 would sacrifice a friendship for a promotion.
Sociologist Jan Yager, author of several books on the subject, warns that work friends can be very different from other friends.
"Work is the basis of a person’s financial stability. You have more to lose from it when deciding between a friend and your source of income,” she explains.
7. LOVE COSTS YOU TWO FRIENDS
Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has studied the effect that love has on friendship and the results are clear: when a new person enters into your life, he or she displaces two others in your close circle, usually a family member or a friend.
In previous studies, the specialist has calculated that we have five close friends (those that we go to when we have problems). However, people in a relationship have four, counting their partner.
Love takes time away from seeing friends and this allows friendships to deteriorate, he points out. “If you don’t see people, your emotional engagement with them drops off and does so quickly.”
8. FRIENDSHIPS ARE GUARANTEED WHEN ...
Knowing what irritates a friend can make your relationship more stable and less frustrating. At least, this was the conclusion arrived at by Dr. Charity Friesen of Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, after giving a questionnaire to college friends about the attitudes and situations that irritated them, or that they or their friend didn’t like.
Friesen called this the “if-then” profile. She considers knowing friends’ reactions when faced with different situations just as important as knowing their tastes.
The characteristics that most irritated the study subjects were skepticism, gullibility, shyness, social boldness, perfectionism and obliviousness.
9. MEN AND WOMEN ARE DIFFERENT
Friendships are important, but especially for women. For men, according to a 2012 study at the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London, family bonds are more essential.
Scientists studied 6,500 British men born in 1958 and found that marriage is most beneficial for men’s mental health, as it enforces their family ties. However, the opposite was true for women, as they tended to lose friends to lack of time when married.
Starting or maintaining these relationships releases oxytocin, a hormone that reduces the tension levels and produces a calming effect.
10. FRIENDSHIP IS GOOD FOR YOUR HEALTH
Friends encourage good habits, chase away depression, help you overcome diseases and cause satisfaction, pleasure and happiness.
“Not having a social support network can be a higher death risk than obesity or leading a sedentary life without exercise,” explains Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology and head of a study at Brigham Young University, on the relationship between friendship and longevity.
"The studies have shown a 50% increased odds of survival if you have a solid social network.”
This article was translated from Spanish and was originally published in El Huffington Post.