By John Nicholson
Social psychologists are used to hearing that their experiments are a waste of time because they just prove the obvious, and tell us what we always knew. But there is a very simple and effective riposte to this accusation. The trouble with folk-wisdom (what we always knew) is that it tends to come in pairs of statements, both of which are ‘obviously ' true, but which --- unfortunately --- are mutually exclusive. For example, we all know that too many cooks spoil the broth. But wait a minute: don't many hands make light work？ Similarly with friendship: birds of a feather flock together, but what about the attraction of opposites? Experiments may not be as much fun as intuitions, but they sometimes tell us which proverbs are actually true, or (more often) in what circumstances which apply. There is one other preconception to be removed before tackling the question of whom we like and love, whom we find attractive and make friends with. Why bother to study an area in which we are all expert practitioners? Surely we can all make friends and organise social relationships naturally, without any assistance from behavioural scientists? Well, if you believe that, have a word with a marriage guidance counsellor, a psychiatrist, or someone involved in industrial relations. Research on friendship has established a number of facts, some interesting, some even useful. Did you know that the average student has 5-6 friends, or that a friend who was previously an enemy is liked more than one who has always been on the right side? Would you believe that physically attractive individuals are preferred as friends to those less comely, and is it fair that physically attractive defendants are less likely to be found guilty in court? Unfortunately, such titbits don't tell us much more about the nature or the purpose of friendship. Why do we make friends? Students of animal behaviour have pointed out that social attraction has an obvious adaptive...
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