- “Friendship chemistry” is an instant connection between friends that feels easy and natural.
- Researchers say people who are agreeable, open, and hardworking are more likely to experience friendship chemistry.
- Other factors matter, too, like whether you each share something about yourselves and whether you have similar life experiences.
If you’ve been on even a single date, then you’ve likely taken part in some post-date analysis. Was she cute? Was he smart? Was there a spark? Did you have – as if anyone even knows what this means – chemistry?
Platonic meet-ups rarely get analysed in as much excruciating detail – in real life or in the lab. While there’s a seemingly infinite amount of scientific papers on attraction between romantic partners, there are comparatively few on the development of friendships.
Refreshingly, a 2015 paper titled “Friendship Chemistry: An Examination of Underlying Factors” dissects the initial attraction between pals with as much rigour as is usually applied to the science of romantic connections.
The paper, published in the Social Science Journal and led by Kelly Campbell, an associate professor at California State University, San Bernardino, concludes that certain people are more likely to experience friendship chemistry, which the researchers define as “an instant connection between friends that is easy and makes the relationship seem natural.”
Those people tend to be agreeable, or friendly; open to experience; and conscientious, or hardworking and organised.
The researchers reached these conclusions through an experiment in which they asked about 1,300 adult participants to consider whether they had ever experienced friendship chemistry.
If they answered yes, participants were asked to think of the specific friend they clicked with and answered a bunch of questions. If they answered no, participants were asked about why they thought they hadn’t experienced it. The researchers also asked participants to complete a personality questionnaire.
The researchers note that conscientiousness may only have turned up as a significant factor because they tested a population of mostly college students and professionals. But they say all three traits are associated with good communication skills, which in turn facilitate friendship chemistry.
Friendships also blossom when each person shares something about themselves
To be sure, there are aspects of the relationship itself – not just individual personality traits – that make it more or less likely that a friendship will blossom. One of those factors is self-disclosure: Previous research suggests that people tend to like each other more after they have shared something personal. The two caveats are that the sharing has to be mutual and you can’t get too personal too quickly.
One important finding from Campbell’s paper is that participants with a European or white ethnic background were more likely to experience friendship chemistry. That’s possibly because other groups may have experienced some kind of discrimination – and may therefore be wary of disclosing much about themselves.
Campbell told me that if you’ve experienced discrimination and “perceive that you may be judged by this person or they aren’t going to understand you, then you might be less likely to open up in that initial interaction, and that would basically shut down, close the door for friendship chemistry.”
At the same time, one of the most important factors in the flourishing of a friendship is a shared history or lifestyle.
Campbell told me she met one of her best friends in grad school and the two women couldn’t have appeared more different. One was from Vancouver, Canada, the other was from the deep south of the United States; one was white, one was African American; one leaned conservative, the other leaned liberal.
But as Campbell told me, they ultimately connected because of factors that came out in her subsequent research, including “humour, for example, just being a kind, good person, down to earth,” and sharing a lifestyle. Campbell said, “Every single day was pretty much the same for both of us for four years.”
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