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When faced with a large group of people, most of us take that opportunity to hone in on someone just like us.
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TODAY contributor
updated 9/22/2011 8:38:48 AM ET 2011-09-22T12:38:48

Ever wonder what your friends see in you? It might just be themselves, according to new research published in the scientific social psychology journal Group Processes and Intergroup Relations.

"When you have opportunity to choose your friends, you will tend to choose people who are similar to you; there's a lot of evidence that we like similar others," says Chris Crandall, psychology professor at the University of Kansas and co-author of the study entitled "Social Ecology of Similarity: Big Schools, Small Schools and Social Relationships."

"It's an amazingly powerful affect. We generally don't make strong friendships with people we violently disagree with."

But what happens when you have a smaller pool of potential friends to choose from? Do we hold out, waiting for our doppelganger to stumble along — or do we friend someone with different religious beliefs, different politics, or even (gasp) different musical taste?

To find out, Crandall and his colleagues interviewed pairs of students at both the University of Kansas (which boasts about 25,000 students), and several smaller rural Kansas colleges (with an average enrollment of about 1,300). Researchers asked a total of 268 students questions about their politics; their moral beliefs (regarding issues like birth control, abortion, the death penalty); their prejudices (everything from anti-Semitism to anti-fat), and even their health-related activities such as exercise or alcohol and tobacco use. Then they tallied the results.

"We found that when you ask people what's important in a friend, the people at the small colleges and the big colleges were pretty much the same," says Crandall. "There were also no differences between the campuses with regard to how long they'd known each other, how old they were, how much time they spent together."

Two differences did stand out, though. On larger campuses, people tended to be friends with those who held many of the same beliefs; in other words, they BFF'd themselves. And on small campuses, people had more diverse friends but rated those friendships as closer.

"It's not surprising they'd be closer," says Crandall. "A small campus is a more intimate experience. But the interesting thing is that they're less similar — but more close. Our data tells us you should feel free to make friends who aren't completely similar to you because people with some differences can still be very close friends."

Rebecca Price, a 34-year-old nonprofit development officer from Seattle, says that becoming friends with people with different viewpoints and backgrounds has been a huge boon to her personal growth.

"When I lived in Texas, there was not a lot of diversity," she says. "But after moving to Seattle — where there's a lot more diversity — and being forced to interact with people I might not have in the past, that changed a lot of my social and political views. My whole view of life has been expanded by being around people who are from different backgrounds than me."

While some wildly different types may never be able to get along (I'm talking to you, Congress), Crandall says there are benefits to being friends with dissimilar types.

"When you meet different people, they provide you with education, with different viewpoints," he says. "You learn that different viewpoints can be held by reasonable people. The message is really optimistic. It's a more expanded notion of who you can tolerate or enjoy as friends. It's probably more people than you think."

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