When things get tough, do you turn to your BFF or a coalition of buddies for emotional support?
Making friends is a crucial part of the human experience, but just like many aspects of life, it turns out men and women have distinct preferences when it comes to friendship.
A recent study found “striking gender differences” in the way we choose non-romantic companions: Women seek a few one-on-one, very close female friends, while men prefer large all-male cliques or clubs.
It's a pattern researchers also see in some animal social networks.
“Much of male friendship is about coalition building. In this, we are very similar to bonobos and chimps,” Tamas David-Barrett, the lead author of the paper, told TODAY.
“(But) all our statements are about general, average persons and their average relationship. We cannot make an all-encompassing statement about ‘all men.’”
The study was based on a very modern measure of our lives: social media.
David-Barrett, a researcher in the department of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford, and his co-authors analyzed the profile photos of almost 112,000 adult Facebook users around the world.
Most people choose an image of themselves for this setting, but the researchers were specifically interested in profile pictures that featured more than one person. They figured these users were showing the world which people in their lives were important to them.
Right away, there were some big differences between the sexes.
Whenever profile photos showed a large group of people, the group members tended to be predominantly male. In general, men liked to be surrounded by lots of peers. Within those groups of friends, competition is suppressed, while bonding is reinforced — often through rituals such as eating and drinking together or competing with another male group, David-Barrett said.
Notably, some men also chose a Facebook profile photo that featured themselves with a distinguished stranger, like a celebrity.
“Men seem to be more likely to put up a picture of a famous person than women would. This would suggest that the status of the potential friend might play a stronger role in men than in women,” David-Barrett said.
When women chose a profile photo showing more than one person, they were surrounded by far fewer people — in fact, pictures of large female-only groups were almost non-existent. Women appeared to “focus their social capital on only one person at a time,” according to the study.
There were 50 percent more profile photos of two women than two men, a result that was “completely unexpected,” David-Barrett said.
The researchers wondered whether men were more reluctant to post photos of themselves with a buddy, especially in places where homophobia was common, but a subsequent study concluded that was unlikely.
So why the big difference in “friendship strategies” among the sexes? It may stem from ancient times and the different roles men and women took on to boost survival.
The study points out men were usually responsible for defending a community against attacks, so it was necessary for them to band together and form a coalition.
Women, on the other hand, may have developed a “unique capacity for intense empathic relationships” because of their roles as mothers, according to one theory. Another noted that women often had to leave their family compounds when they married, so they sought out sisterly bonds in their new homes to replace family. Women also may favor pairing up in friendships in the same way they prefer one-on-one relationships with romantic partners.
The study appears in the journal PLOS One.