Schoolyard Picks: How People Evaluate Friend Potential in Others

We all use a variety of clues to figure out whether a person we’re interacting with is going to like us. After all, being rejected hurts, and we typically would rather not pursue a friendship with someone who might reject us. To determine whether we’re likely to be rejected by a potential friend, we might notice whether we share the same hobbies, whether we dress similarly, or whether the person is acting in a friendly manner to us—making eye contact, that sort of thing.
Recent research by Dr. Jenessa Shapiro takes this process a step further, finding that we pay attention not only to what the potential friend does personally, but also to their own friendships. Shapiro and colleagues presented White college students with a Black potential friend, pictured either alone, with a White friend, or with a Black friend. The idea was that seeing a Black potential friend who has a Black friend might lead people to conclude that the potential friend is uninterested in White friends.

As expected, the researchers found that White students were less accepting of the potential Black friend when he was presented with a Black friend, while they were more accepting when he was presented with a White friend or alone.

Why might this be?  The research suggests that it is, indeed, a matter of anxiety over being rejected. That is, when a White student saw a Black student with a Black friend, they became more anxious about being rejected. That anxiety, in turn, was associated with more rejection of the Black potential friend, perhaps as a means of self-protection from rejection.

All is not lost, though! The researchers found that a simple intervention, in which individuals were asked to think of a time when they’d felt socially included, was enough to reduce anxiety in the participants. After they did the inclusion exercise, participants showed less rejection anxiety with the Black student who had a Black friend, and subsequently were less likely to reject that student as a potential friend.

The authors argue that this research draws attention to the importance of anxiety in explaining why people sometimes don’t pursue interracial friendships. It also reveals how powerful an effect feelings of inclusion have on this particular bias.   They suggest that future research should address other methods of reducing anxiety in interracial interactions.

I was lucky enough to correspond with Jenessa Shapiro, the lead author on this research, and get her thoughts on this study.

Patrick Rock: What is the biggest lesson from this research that you think it’s important for people to remember?

Dr. Jenessa Shapiro: I think the biggest lesson is that people, kids and adults, worry about being socially rejected and that this can get in the way of cross-race friendship development.

PR: What are the implications of this research for the world outside academia? Said differently, who should care about this, and why?

JS: We should care about these findings because they are pointing to cues in the environment that are shaping our friendship networks without us even realizing it. That is, we draw conclusions about someone’s interest in us ,and our interest in befriending someone else, just from who he is socializing with! As a result, there are simple things that schools and workplace environments can do to increase communication and friendship development. It is also very relevant to our own personal experiences. We are likely underestimating how interested some of our coworkers, fellow PTA members, etc are in talking to us or befriending us. We are also likely to underestimate how unfriendly we appear to others. Simple changes in our behaviors can easily overcome these inaccuracies.

PR: What are your next questions, for this line of research?

JS: We are interested in continuing to understand what gets in the way of cross-race friendship and what increases anxiety when it comes in cross-race interactions.

PR: Were there any challenges in the design of this research?

JS: We did not face too many challenges. We were able to replicate this effect a number of times without problems.

PR: Do you have any tips for researchers starting out, either at the undergrad or the graduate level?

JS: I think the two best pieces of advice that I have received were: (1) Pursue research questions that you are interested in—the result is that it becomes impossible not to love what you do for a living and (2) Learn as much as possible from those around you—from your mentors, from your students, and from what is just happening everyday in society.