In recent posts on friendship we’ve looked at the importance of self-disclosure and reciprocity in evolving an acquaintance into a friend. Following on from that in the development of a true friendship is sharing intimacy. There is another way that we bond with our besties, they offer us social identity support. We become friends with people who reinforce the beliefs, habits, hobbies, lifestyles or other elements that currently form our identity. While we would like to think that we have a broad spectrum of friends because we like there diversity and that that they support different parts of our identity, however research has shown that is exactly what is happening.
If closeness forms the basis of friendship, it stands to reason that your best friend would be someone with whom you enjoy supersized intimacy. If I confide that money is tight or my boyfriend’s in the doghouse I might detail the money worries or give a blow-by-blow of the dramathon that led to the boyfriend’s banishment. We have with our best friends a “beyond-the-call-of-duty” expectation. If we suffer an emergency—real or imagined—and need to talk, we expect our best friend to drop everything and race to our side.
But according to social psychologists Carolyn Weisz and Lisa F. Wood at the University of Puget Sound, in Tacoma, Washington, there’s another component to best friendship that may trump even intimacy: social-identity support, the way in which a friend understands, and then supports, our sense of self in society or the group. If we view ourselves as a mother first and a belly dancer only on Saturday mornings at the local dance studio, our best friend is likely to be another mom because she supports our primary social-identity (as opposed to our personal identity as, say, someone who loves film noir or comes from the Bronx). Our social-identity might relate to our religion, our ethnic group, our social role, or even membership in a special club.
Weisz and Wood showed the importance of social identity support by following a group of college students from freshman through senior year. Over that period, the students were asked to describe levels of closeness, contact, general supportiveness, and social identity support with same-sex friends.
The results were revealing. Overall closeness, contact, and supportiveness predicted whether a good friendship was maintained. But when the researchers controlled for these qualities, only a single factor—social-identity support—predicted whether a friend would ultimately be elevated to the position of “best.” Best friends often were part of the same crowd—the same fraternity, say, or tennis team. But Weisz and Wood found that friends offering such support could also be outside the group. Sometimes all a friend needed to do to keep the best friendship going was to affirm the other person’s identity as a member of the given group (“You’re a real Christian”) or even the status of the group itself (“It’s so cool that you play sax for the Stanford band!”). Reasons for the finding, say the researchers, may range from greater levels of intimacy and understanding to assistance with pragmatic needs to enhanced self-esteem.
We become best friends with people who boost our self-esteem by affirming our identities as members of certain groups, and it’s the same for both genders. Men who derive their most cherished identity through their role as high school quarterback, for instance, are most likely to call a former fellow teammate “best friend.”
Our desire for identity support is so strong, Weisz found, that it may even make a difference for the addicted. In another study, she found people with substance abuse problems were likelier to kick their habits after three months when they had felt more conflict between drug use and their social roles and sense of self. Those who felt socially in sync with the drug use were less likely to become substance-free. Indeed, our social identities are so important to us that we’re willing to court disaster to preserve them. We stick with people who support our social identity and withdraw from those who don’t. We may even switch friends when the original ones don’t support our current view of ourselves.
Most of us would prefer to think that we love our friends because of who they are, not because of the ways in which they support who we are. It sounds vaguely narcissistic, and yet the studies bear it out.
A corollary for many people is the impetus to change best friends when life throws us a curveball or alters us in basic ways. There’s no better example than former members of breast cancer support groups whose diseases have been cured. Though the women no longer have breast cancer and have continued with family and careers, their social identity as survivors often remains so powerful that their primary bonds of friendship are with other survivors, the only people who can understand what they’ve been through and grasp their perspective on life. After such major life events as marriage, parenthood, and divorce, we may easily switch up our best friend as well.
It is very interesting, given the above context, to have a look at your friends and what it is they are reinforcing or supporting in our own identity. Suddenly the ‘odd one’ doesn’t seem so when we truly see the meaning of how aligned we are with them. As Henry David Thoreau aptly put it “the language of friendship is not words but meanings.”