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Which Friendships Last the Longest?: Psychology of Attraction and Adolescent Relationships

About half of all adolescent friendships don’t even survive into the next school year. Surely you’ve been there—are you still friends with everyone you were friends with in middle school?

It seems like friendships formed during this time in life are especially vulnerable and unstable. That’s not to say all young friendships are doomed, of course, but it calls for an interesting social psychological question: what are the adolescent friendships that hold strong and which ones fizzle out?

One recently published study aimed to find out and surveyed hundreds of 7th graders about their friends. Each year after that, up until 12th grade, the students gave an update on the state of their friendships. Overall, only 25% of 7th grade friendships lasted into the next year, and only 1% lasted through 12th grade.

Similarity and Friendship

pinky-swear-329329_640If you’ve taken my course on the Psychology of Attraction, it won’t surprise you to know that one thing the researchers wanted to know was whether similarity corresponded with lasting friendships. We know from lots of research that we like people who are like us. Despite the folk wisdom that “opposites attract,” similarity instead seems like a more powerful force.

So the researchers looked at how similar those 7th grade friends were to one another. They measured a bunch of characteristics of each person in the friendship like their gender, academic performance, and aggressiveness. By looking at the differences in one person’s attributes and the other, they could test how important similarity was.

It turned out that similarity was very important. Friendships were more likely to dissolve (and to do so especially soon) when the friends were of different genders, physical aggressiveness, school ability, and social status.

To look more closely at the strongest example, friends of different genders were almost 4 times more likely than same-gender friends to end that friendship during adolescence.

Do Some People Just Keep Closer Friends Than Others?

It’s also possible that, beyond having similar characteristics to each other, just having a particular personality in the first place makes you more likely to keep friendships going longer.

In fact, previous research has shown that girls hold friendships longer than boys. Also, kids who are less successful in school and who have more aggressive personalities tend to have shorter friendships, on average.

The new study, however, didn’t find any evidence for this after controlling for the similarity variables. That is, it’s possible that it’s more important to have similar qualities, regardless of what those qualities are.

The Bigger Picture: A Psychology of Attraction

Overall, it seems once again that similarity is an important predictor of liking and relationship quality. This time, we find the evidence in real friendships between hundreds of middle school students, only some of which stood the test of time. (To learn more about the importance of similarity and likeability, check out Psychology of Attraction.)

What about you? Would you say the friends you’ve kept since middle school are similar to you? Or have you defied the odds and stayed close despite big differences?


This post is part of New Research Friday: Each Friday, we aim to bring new research in social psychology to the blog, highlighting information revealed in studies that have only recently been published.

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