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Do You Know the Basics of Friendship?

Friendship may sometimes feel complicated, but it turns out that recognizing your true friends can be surprisingly simple.

There are some fundamental elements that every close bond shares: To call someone a friend, the relationship must be long-lasting, it must be positive, and it must involve cooperation. That’s the three-legged stool that friendship rests on, say the evolutionary biologists I’ve been reporting on (link is external). Similar personalities or a shared sense of humor do matter, but they’re less essential than you might think. Remove a leg of that stool, though, and your “friend” may not be there for you when you need them. And being able to count on someone in a crisis, say the researchers, is the whole reason we have friends in the first place.
Getting Serious About Friendship
This stripped-down definition of friendship is the result of a shift in how scientists think about social behavior. For a long time — centuries, really — serious scientists didn’t study friendship, because they didn’t much respect it. It was too squishy, too ephemeral, too hard to define and measure (and defining and measuring are essential to the scientific process).
But then primatologists — yes, the researchers who spend their time observing monkeys and apes — noticed that the animals they watched seemed to have friends, too. A debate ensued about whether it was appropriate to use the word “friend” when talking about animals. In the end, the scientists decided to call it like they saw it, and what they saw was friendship.
How could they tell? Because in animals, the researchers could measure the interactions between individuals, over the lifetimes of generations of baboons and macaques and chimpanzees.
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