Monday, 16 July 2012

Just good friends? Attraction to opposite-sex friends is common and burdensome

"Every platonic friend I got is some woman I was trying to ****, I made a wrong turn somewhere, and ended up in the friend zone. 'Oh no, I'm in the friend zone!'" Chris Rock.
They were virtually unheard of for most of human history, but today, in many cultures, friendships between men and women are common place. Still, that niggling doubt never seems to go away - is the relationship really entirely platonic?

A new study by April Bleske-Rechek and her colleagues has investigated cross-sex friendships between heterosexual men and women through the prism of evolutionary theory. From a survey of 88 pairs of college students in cross-sex friendships (averaging two years' duration), the researchers found that: men felt more attraction to their female friend than vice versa; that men overestimated how much their friend was attracted to them; and that men's desire to date their female friend was unaffected by whether they (the men) were in a romantic relationship with someone else, whereas females tended to report less desire to date their male friend, if they (the women) were already in a romantic relationship. Male attraction for a female friend was undimmed by the fact their friend had a partner. By contrast women tended to report less attraction for male friends who had partners.

The participants gave their answers after being reassured they'd be kept anonymous, and after agreeing publicly with their friend not to discuss the study afterwards (I bet they stuck to that!).

The pattern of results makes sense from an evolutionary psychology perspective on mating strategies, the researchers said, whereby men have more to gain from short-term sexual encounters, whereas women, who invest more in their offspring (in terms of gestation and child-birth), are more selective.

What about the way people deal with their sexual desires for opposite-sex friends? For a second study, over a hundred heterosexual young men and women (average age 19), and an older sample of 142 men and women (average age 37), answered questions about their cross-sex friendships, including listing the costs and benefits. Among the younger sample, 38 per cent were in a (non-marital) romantic relationship; around 90 per cent of the older sample were married.

Again, the researchers said the findings made sense in terms of evolutionary theory. The older sample, most of whom were immersed in a serious long-term relationship, reported less attraction to their opposite-sex friends than the younger sample did. However, this wasn't case for the older single people - they reported just as much attraction to their opposite-sex friends as the younger participants.

Overall, attraction to an opposite-sex friend was more often seen as a burden rather than a benefit of the friendship. Averaged across both samples, attraction was listed as a cost or complication by 32 per cent of participants - five times more often than it was listed as a benefit or enhancement. For young women, and men and women in the older sample, more attraction to their closest friend was associated with feeling less satisfied with their romantic partner.

Zooming in on gender differences, men more often than women, listed attraction to their female friends as a benefit of the friendship, and they were less likely than women to list it as a cost.

"Our findings offer preliminary support for the proposal that men's and women's experiences in cross-sex friendship reflect their evolved mating strategies," Bleske-Rechek and her team concluded. "Attraction between cross-sex friends is common, and it is perceived more often as a burden than as a benefit." Looking ahead, the researchers said it would be interesting to investigate attraction between homosexual same-sex friends, and whether it's seen by them as a burden or benefit of the friendship.


Bleske-Rechek A.,, Somers, E., Micke, C., Erickson, L., Matteson, L., Stocco, C., Schumacher, B., and Ritchie, L. (2012). Benefit or burden? Attraction in cross-sex friendship. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships DOI: 10.1177/0265407512443611

Further reading, from the New York Times: "A Man. A Woman. Just Friends?"

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.


Anonymous said...

It seems to me that this study might reveal more about how people describe their relationships than how they actually feel. Men may be more likely to describe attraction to opposite sex friends than women. I would guess that if these straight women were asked to describe attraction to their female friends, they would be more likely than their male counterparts to say things like "they are attractive." This study probably has as much or more to do with gender norms than it does any kind of evolutionary strategy.

Unknown said...

I think you over-estimate the novelty of intergender friendships. Throuhout our nomadic and hunter/gatherer history such relationsips were probably hard to avoid. Of course- monogamy wasn't needed until agriculture evolved so a lot of those friendships weren't so cleanly platonic and friendzone wasn't a problem like it is now.

Anonymous said...

I'm not convinced that the data fits evolutionary theory as much as the evolutionary theory fits the data. I think that the results from the study are interesting, but reflect social phenomenon rather than evolutionary phenomenon. But there's really no way to know for sure.

Ben said...

So this is entirely self-reported? That makes it totally worthless for the stated purpose. We already know that women massively under-report sexuality-related issues (if forced to dig up the studies, I can, but I'm sure Christian has many more to hand than I do).

This study should really be titled "Something that's been proved many times over: Men tell other people that they're sexier than they are and more sexually successful, women tell other people the opposite"... Admittedly that's a little long.

cm729 said...

Taking from what the first poster said, this study shows a lot about gender roles. Evolutionary theory does indeed fit with this data, however, this study ignores that even though what they say would be kept anonymous, men would be more likely to admit their attraction than women. Women know that if a one of the two involved in the friendship was in a relationship, then women believe it would be wrong to have romantic feelings towards their friends, even if they do. Men on the other hand are more likely to be seen as "pigs" by modern society, so admitting their feelings is easier.

This study does bring up some questions about how gender roles played a part in the data collected. It would be difficult to prove that they affected the results; however, the data fits.

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