Much early research on affiliation and friendship developed from an interest in social groups. After World War II, social scientists were interested in identifying the attitudes and processes that unify people and motivate their allegiances. Social comparison theory helps to explain a broad range of behavior, including friendship choices, group membership, and proselytizing. Festinger suggested that group membership is helpful when one's beliefs have been challenged or disproved. Like-minded fellow members will be equally motivated to rationalize the challenge. In their 1956 book When Prophecy Fails, Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Schachter document the experience of two groups of contemporary persons who had attested a belief that the world would end in a disastrous flood. One group was able to gather and meet to await the end, while the other individuals, mostly college students, were scattered and could not assemble. When the world did not end as predicted, only those in the group context were able to rationalize their predicament, and they proceeded to proselytize, spreading the word to "converts." Meanwhile, the scattered members, unable to rationalize their surprise, lost faith in the prophecy and left the larger group.

Research on propinquity combined with other studies of interpersonal attraction in the 1960's and 1970's. Friendship and love are challenging topics to study because they cannot be re-created in a laboratory setting. Studies of personal relationships are difficult to conduct in natural settings; if people know they are being observed while they talk or date, they behave differently or leave the scene. Natural or field studies are also less conclusive than laboratory research because it is not always clear which factors have produced the feelings or actions that can be observed.

Friendship has not been as popular a topic in relationships research as romantic love, marriage, and sexual relationships. Some research has identified gender differences in friendship: Women communicate their feelings and experiences with other women, while men's friendships involve common or shared activities. Developmental psychologists have also identified some age differences: Children are less discriminating about friendship, identifying someone as a friend who is merely a playmate; adults have more complex ideas about friendship forms and standards.

As research on close relationships has gained acceptance, work in communication studies has contributed to the findings of social psychologists. Consequently, more is being learned about the development and maintenance of friendship as well as the initial attractions and bonds that encourage people's ties to others.

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