The Burrow

Explaining Friendship: Philosophical or Scientific?

Danielle Schmidt, Co-Editor-in-Chief

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 Why do we develop friendships? Ask Debra Barton, author of Letting Go of Friends, and she will tell you that we need friends because they “improve your mood”, “support you through tough times”, and “boost your sense of self worth.” These are all the very typical answers to the very philosophical question. We, as simple-minded creatures, take these superficial answers and run with it; waccept that the reason why we make friends is because they are our emotional and social anchors. But is there a deeper meaning to the age-old science of friendship? 

There does seem to exist a slight difference between why friends are important to us in everyday life and the primal reason why we make friends in the first place. We admire friendship because having someone to talk to and confide in is nice but this desire isn’t ingrained in our DNA. What is ingrained in our DNA is the primitive drive to survive and while friendship may not seem detrimental to human survival, it does relate to our animalistic desire to surround ourselves with assets. 

Wildlife biologists observe in most larger species (whales, orcas, dolphins, lions, tigers, etc.) the tendency to alter their packs or family units to best suit their long term survival. Pre-existing packs that encounter others will recruit the strongest to strengthen their odds for success and will, sadly, leave the weakest links behind in order to excel. To explain these relationships in nature, evolutionary biologists have typically relied on a tit-for-tat process known as reciprocal altruism to explain friendship: you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” (Jason G. Goldman of BBC). The science behind this semblance of a friendship is a mutually beneficial relationship between the animals in a pack and their trust in one another to protect their group at any cost. This reciprocal altruism paradigm can also be used to explain most, if not all, human friendships as well.  

Humans are social creatures just as most other animals in the wild so it isn’t a shock that most friendships between people arise from social situations: playing on the same playground as a child, having the same classes together as a young adult in school, or working in the same space as an adult. When a group of high-school aged students were asked about the person they consider their best friend and why they remain friends, the answers followed the general path of “because we share interest”, “because they’re just like me”, “because I have someone to talk to and share my feeling with.” The truth of the matter is that all these reasons can be attributed to reciprocal altruism or the tit-for-tat relationship often found in wild animals. Each and every reasoning given above demonstrates the benefit of having an emotional companion to confide in and talk to on a regular basis rather than being alone. 

Reciprocal altruism is also the reason why we gain and lose friends throughout life because our needs in a companion are altered as we growBlogger Amy C. expands on the idea that the first conscious friendships developed as teenagers are all about fitting in and therefore we surround ourselves with the people we aspire to be like to develop an identity. She recalls “subconsciously I was vying for validation by association, hoping that being surrounded by the cool kids would make me feel accepted and important.” In this case, her friendship with the ‘cool kids’ benefited her socially in the way that she gained importance through connections. She also mentions that “as [her] interests and priorities changed, so did [her] friends,” establishing the legitimacy of reciprocal altruism by explaining how her once-important friends no longer had a –use– per se, further linking together the parallels between human and animal friendships. 

In conclusion, all friendships boil down to the general tit for tat relationship known as reciprocal altruism in which both parties gain an advantage in life. These advantages may be manifested in many different ways such as gaining an emotional escape, someone to share interests with and secure comradery with, or the quite literal benefit of gaining a tangible reward like money or gifts–in which case the friendship may not last long. 

 

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Explaining Friendship: Philosophical or Scientific?