friendsSocial scientists have been enthralled by the study of personal relationships for decades. Overwhelmingly, though, when they study relationships they mostly study just one kind of relationship – the romantic kind. Little by little, research on other relationships, such as friendships, is starting to appear. What we are learning is a lesson in valuing all of the important people in our lives, and not just spouses or romantic partners.

Below is a sampling of five research findings illustrating ways in which our friends make us better and stronger. As you will see, sometimes our friends do not even need to be present in order for them to make our lives better – just thinking about them will do the trick.

  1. Thinking about a friend makes people more inclined to help a stranger. In the study, people sitting alone in an airport who were prompted to think about good friend were more likely to agree to help a stranger. Something about friendship is what mattered. Asking people to think about an equal-status coworker they know well and have a good relationship with (but who is not a friend outside of work) did not result in the same willingness to help a stranger.
  2. People who are anxious in social situations are less likely to fumble in those situations when a friend is nearby than when they are alone. One way this works is that fewer negative thoughts about yourself run through your head when a friend is at your side.
  3. Challenges seem less challenging when you are with, or just think about, a friend. In the research, participants stood in front of a hill either alone or with a friend, then estimated the steepness of the hill. Those standing with a friend thought the hill was less steep. In another study, just thinking about a friend made a hill seem less steep when compared to thinking about a neutral person or a disliked person.
  4. Friends make foes seem smaller and less formidable. Men who were with a male friend saw a potential foe as smaller and less muscular than they did when they were alone.
  5. We are more modest in the ways we present ourselves to our friends. With strangers, we are more likely to toot our own horns.


  1. Fitzsimons, G. M., & Bargh, J. A. (2003). Thinking of you: Nonconscious pursuit of interpersonal goals associated with relationship partners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 148-164.
  2. Pontari, B. A. (2009). Appearing socially competent: The effects of a friend’s presence on the socially anxious. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 283-294.
  3. Schnall, S., Harber, K. D., Stefanucci, J. K., & Proffitt, D. R. (2008). Social support and the perception of geographical slant. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 1246-1255.
  4. Fessler, D. M. T., & Holbrook, C. (2013). Friends shrink foes. Psychological Science, 24, 797-802.
  5. Tice, D. M., Butler, J. L., Muraven, M. B., & Stillwell, A. M. (1995). When modesty prevails: Differential favorability of self-presentation to friends and strangers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 1120-1138.

Group of friends image available from Shutterstock.