Studies of longterm friends offer surprising insights as to whether friends who are more or less alike tend to endure
Bring to mind the friendships in your life: what do you think makes some of them feel more supportive and enjoyable than others? No doubt there are shared stories, experiences and interests that play a part. But what about the role of your friends’ personality traits – and your own?
In a recent study based in Germany, Robert Körner at the University of Bamberg and Tobias Altmann at the University of Duisburg-Essen wanted to find out whether having certain personality traits was related to how people perceived their friendships and to how they were perceived as friends. The researchers also wanted to explore whether the chemistry between two friends’ traits made a difference.
Studying this sort of thing is more complicated than it might first appear. Imagine a friendship between Al and Bob. The way that Al experiences the friendship might be affected not only by her own personality traits, but also by Bob’s traits (as Bob judges them), and, crucially, also by how Al perceives Bob’s traits. ‘We wanted to study all these effects simultaneously,’ says Körner.
To do this, the researchers conducted an online survey of nearly 200 pairs of friends. Their friendships varied in length but had lasted an average of 10 years to date. Each person answered a set of questions that measured their personality traits, and they answered the same questions about their friend’s personality. They also indicated how satisfied they were with the friendship, answering questions about how supportive their friend was at a practical level and in an emotional sense, and also how much fun the friend was to hang out with.
Breaking their findings down in terms of the ‘Big Five’ personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism), the researchers found several intriguing patterns. For instance, people who rated themselves as more extraverted, agreeable and emotionally stable (lower in neuroticism) also tended to say they felt more satisfied with their friendship. This ties in with what’s known about how people’s personalities act as a lens through which they experience the world, and can even affect the kinds of experiences they are likely to have. If you’re more happy, warm and outgoing by nature, you’re more likely to see your friendships in positive ways, too. You might also be more likely to build mutually supportive relationships than if you were, say, more withdrawn and moody.
People who rated themselves as more agreeable were also judged as better friends on average, which makes sense given that agreeable people are warm, friendly and trusting. Those who rated themselves as more extraverted were judged as better friends, too, but only in the sense of being more fun to socialise with. Again, this is not the most surprising of the findings: extraverts tend to be bubblier than introverts, and they are more likely to take a proactive role in terms of meeting up. ‘You may feel important and appreciated when often being contacted and spending time together with an extraverted person,’ says Körner.
Different and less expected results emerged when the researchers looked at how one’s personality was perceived within a friendship. People who perceived a friend as more open-minded, conscientious and agreeable were more likely to say that person was a good friend (regardless of how that friend rated their own personality). One takeaway here might be that if you want to be a better friend – or, at least, to be judged as a better one – it will probably pay to try to enact these traits. In a friendship context, being more open-minded could involve a willingness to try out new activities together, while being more conscientious could mean staying committed to plans you make to get together.
A correspondence in certain personality traits might draw people together initially
It’s notable that being perceived as extraverted (or not) wasn’t relevant to whether someone was judged to be a good friend, nor was perceived neuroticism. This is surely encouraging news for anyone who thinks they might be giving off the vibes of a neurotic introvert – don’t fret, your buddies are unlikely to judge you for it!
The result that most surprised the researchers, however, was that they didn’t find an effect of personality chemistry. That is, satisfaction with a friendship was unrelated to how similar two friends’ personality ratings were.
On the surface, this might seem to be at odds with what people know and expect about friendship. Friendships often arise out of convenience, as seminal social psychology research in the 1950s showed – students were more likely to become friends with peers who lived on the same building floor as them. But personality is also important, with more recent research suggesting that we’re inclined to form close friendships with people whom we perceive to have personality traits similar to our own.
Körner and Altmann’s finding that personality similarity was not relevant to satisfaction in established friendships suggests that this is a factor that wanes in importance over time. In many cases, a correspondence in certain personality traits might draw people together initially. But when a bond is well established, having similar traits might not matter much for how satisfied two friends are with their friendship – whether they have stayed quite similar, have drifted apart personality-wise, or were never very similar to begin with. With a lasting friendship may come acceptance, whatever the level of personality resemblance, says Körner. ‘You have a broader basis – all that time you’ve spent together – on which to base a successful friendship.’