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Friends Like Me: Why Diverse Groups May Lead to Similar Friends

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Logic would suggest that the more diverse a society or group of people is, the more diverse the friendships within that group would be. Isn’t this, after all, why we move to big cities and attend large universities and join Facebook? But a new study finds that the opposite is actually the case.

Researchers at Wellesley College and the University of Kansas wanted to test whether having a larger pool of potential buddies would lead to greater diversity among groups of friends. So they looked at the friendship patterns at two types of universities — the 25,000-student University of Kansas in Lawrence, compared with four small colleges, averaging about 1,000 students each, scattered throughout Kansas.

“One might imagine that a small homogeneous community will lead people to form relationships with others much like themselves, compared to a larger eclectic mix of people,” the researchers write in the journal Group Processes and Intergroup Relations. “We predict that the size and diversity of an environment will have exactly the opposite effect.” (Italics theirs.)

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And indeed that’s what they found. At the University of Kansas, students tended to have friends who mirrored their beliefs, values, attitudes and personalities more closely than those at smaller colleges. But, on the other hand, students at smaller colleges tended to foster closer relationships with their friends, even though they were less similar.

The authors suggest that these effects are due to greater social mobility: that is, the more people there are, the easier is it is to make new friends and then move to another social group if it doesn’t work out. So people continue to sift through the various social groups and seek out friends who are like them in increasingly fine-grained ways. Sociologist have shown that this granularity can extend as far as physical appearance, or even having the same first letter in your name.

If people don’t have as many choices, they tend to form stronger bonds with the friends they have. Which leads one to wonder: are the friendships closer because, initially, they require more work on behalf of each party? It’s worth noting that the smaller colleges had more black students and that cross-racial friendships often converged along other lines — like values, personality or, and we’re speculating here, similar feelings about the oeuvre of Li’l Wayne.

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So, if you want a more diverse group of friends do you go to a big college or a small one? The scientifically definitive answer: it depends, and a lot of it seems to be up to the individual. But it means that small colleges and big ones need to take slightly different approaches to fostering those all-important college bonds.

It’s also possible, as sociologist Dalton Conley recently suggested, that all of this is moot. In the era of Facebook, a lot of college-friendships are pre-ordained before anyone even steps on campus.

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