Friendship Is More Powerful Than We Ever Imagined

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Katharine Trendacosta

Friendship Is More Powerful Than We Ever Imagined

Friendship is powerful — everything from pop culture tells us so. But how powerful is it? Turns out that friendship has all sorts of properties, that include making you healthier, increasing your self-awareness and helping you accomplish way more. Here are all the ways science proves that friendship really is magic.

Genetics Can Predict Slightly Better Than Chance If Two People Are Friends

It’s not that there’s a “friendship gene,” it’s that there is some correlation between genetics and friendship. The study looked at 1,367 friendship pairs and 466,608 genetic marker and variants of those genetic markers. The study made sure to look at people who were not related, but the subjects were almost all of European descent.

The researchers concluded:

Pairs of friends are, on average, as genetically similar to one another as fourth cousins, which seems noteworthy because this estimate is above and beyond mean ancestry and background relatedness. Acquiring friends who resemble oneself genotypically from among a group of strangers may reflect a number of processes, including the selection of particular friends or particular environments. Whatever its cause, however, the subtle process of genetic sorting in human social relationships might have an important effect on a number of other biological and social processes, from the spread of germs to the spread of information.

And yet, it wasn’t the same across all markers. On the one hand, friends were more likely than others to share genetic markers related to smell whereas they were less likely to share genetic markers related to immune system.

The smell thing, the researchers say, could be related to the role smell plays in kin recognition and that “it is possible that individuals who smell things in the same way are drawn to similar environments where they interact with and befriend one another.” As for the immune system results:

In the case of friends, there may also be advantages to complementarity rather than synergy when it comes to immune system function because surrounding oneself with others who are dissimilar to oneself in this regard may be an adaptive strategy. If one is already relatively resistant to a particular pathogen, it would be best to have friends who were resistant to different pathogens, thus mitigating the interpersonal spread of both. Genes affecting the immune system do not necessarily benefit from interpersonal ties to genotypically similar individuals.

What the study did provide the researchers was the ability to predict if unrelated people were friends. Said study author James Fowler:

We can do better than chance at predicting if two people are going to be friends if all we have is their genetic data.

So not a slam dunk, by any means, but better than a coin flip.

Friendship Is More Powerful Than We Ever Imagined

It Helps You Live Longer and Healthier Lives

This has been exhaustively researched and the conclusion is pretty universal: friendships help improve life expectancy and health. A 2010 meta-analysis of 148 studies into friendship and mortality indicated a “50% increased likelihood of survival for participants with stronger social relationships.” This number stayed consistent across age, sex, initial health status, cause of death, and follow-up period.

As for why friendships have good effects, the authors of the study describe the two competing theories, the stress buffering model and and the main effects model, this way:

There are two general theoretical models that propose processes through which social relationships may influence health: the stress buffering and main effects models. The buffering hypothesis suggests that social relationships may provide resources (informational, emotional, or tangible) that promote adaptive behavioral or neuroendocrine responses to acute or chronic stressors (e.g., illness, life events, life transitions). The aid from social relationships thereby moderates or buffers the deleterious influence of stressors on health.

From this perspective, the term social support is used to refer to the real or perceived availability of social resources. The main effects model proposes that social relationships may be associated with protective health effects through more direct means, such as cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and biological influences that are not explicitly intended as help or support. For instance, social relationships may directly encourage or indirectly model healthy behaviors; thus, being part of a social network is typically associated with conformity to social norms relevant to health and self-care. In addition, being part of a social network gives individuals meaningful roles that provide self-esteem and purpose to life.

So either friendship lessens the impact of negative effects or promotes healthier behaviors. But whatever the cause, the correlation numbers are very strong. And the effect got stronger the more types of relationships there were. In the studies looking beyond one factor — such as marital status — the likelihood of survival increased to 91%. Things as simple as whether or not a person lived alone were the least predictive, since it wasn’t a perfect proxy for having a strong relationship.

Because many of the studies that this meta-analysis included only used a single item for evaluation, the researchers caution that their 50% number may actually be low and the true number may be closer to the 91% result from the more complex studies. That’s how good friends are for your life expectancy. Have good, close friendships — and live longer.

Friendship Is More Powerful Than We Ever Imagined

It Makes You More Willing to Learn About Your Flaws

Thinking of a close relationship can soften blows and make you more open to hearing about things you’ve done badly. A 2005 study had 110 participants take a so-called “intelligence task.” The participants were put in three groups: one group was asked to think of the person they had the closest relationship to, one was asked to think of the person they had the worst relationship with, and the third to think of a neutral relationship. The first two groups spent three minutes answering questions about those relationships, to cement them even more in their mind.

After that, each participant was told that they had done poorly on the intelligence test, in order to make them believe the test had found a liability. They were then asked to rank, on a scale of 1 = not at all to 9 = very much, “How interested are you in reading detailed liability-focusedinformation?”; “To what extent would you be willing to go out of your way to obtain detailed liability-focused information?”; ‘To what extent would you like us to recommend furthersources that would provide you with even more detailed liability-focused information?”

The participants also rated test difficulty 1 to 9 (easy to hard) and “how pleasant or unpleasant do you expect the detailed information about yourself to be?” (1 to 9, very unpleasant to unpleasant).

The people thinking about close relationships were more interested in learning more about their liabilities than the other two groups combined, while the neutral and negative groups weren’t too different in terms of how interested they were. So close relationships made it easier to seek out beneficial, but unpleasant, information about yourself.

The researchers essentially repeated the experiment, this time having the participants answer questions that assessed their self-esteem and their mood, while an observer rated the affect (how warmly the participants acted). The results were that mood and self-esteem didn’t differ that much, but affect did.

Friendship Is More Powerful Than We Ever Imagined

The researchers concluded that people thinking of positive relationships were warmer and more accepting, and hypothesized that it acted as a “buffer,” as in the stress buffering theory offered for the health benefits of friendship:

Assuming that close positive relationships convey a sense of warmth and acceptance, we hypothesized that thinking about close positive relationships would increase receptivity to accurate but unpleasant information about performance weaknesses in the face of immediate prior failure. Close positive relationships buffer the self to the point where accurate and potentially beneficial information about one’s liabilities will be considered worth soliciting despite the clear and present threat to the self.

The evidence was consistent with the hypothesis. In Experiment 1, participants who brought to mind a close positive (as opposed to close negative or neutral) relationship indicated stronger interest in additional information about a newly discoveredweakness. In Experiment 2, participants who brought to mind a close positive (as opposed to close negative, distant positive, or distant negative) relationship expressed the strongest interest in information about a newly discovered weakness. Buffered by thoughts of a close positive relationship, participants overcame a considerable amount of self-threat in their quest for potentially useful information.

Think about having a friend give you constructive criticism. And now think of an enemy doing it. It’s not surprising that we’re more receptive in the first case. But this study indicates that just being in the friendship headspace will make it easier for you to hear bad things about yourself.

Friendship Is More Powerful Than We Ever Imagined

So Long As You’re Not the Most Productive Worker, Having Friends At Work Makes You More Productive

A 2010 study looked at the productivity of workers in harvesting fruit, and found that the presence of friends did affect ability:

The evidence points to social incentives affecting workers’ behaviour, despite there being no externalities arising from either the production technology or compensation schemes in place. Social incentives are found to depend on the ability of a worker relative to that of her friends present on the same field-day. More precisely, relative to working only with non-friends, the average worker is 10% more productive if at least one of her abler friends is present, and is 10% less productive if she is the ablest among her friends.

This was even though being more productive led to higher pay:

However, our findings are consistent with the hypothesis that workers are averse to inequality in productivity with their friends. This might be relevant if, for instance, fast workers do not want to embarrass their slower friends by leaving them behind, or if slow workers are ashamed of their low productivity.

An alternative hypothesis to explain our findings is that workers benefit from socializing on the field. As plants grow on parallel rows, the workers’ productivity determines the speed at which they physically move along the row and the distance to the worker in the next row. Hence slowing down in the presence of less able friends and working faster in the presence of more able friends allows a worker to remain physically close to her friends, and therefore socialize more easily with them

In other words, we’d rather be with/equal to our friends than more efficient at work. So being with more productive work friends will inspire us to keep up — whereas we’ll fall back to join friends who are lagging behind.

Friendship Is More Powerful Than We Ever Imagined

Friendship Literally Lightens the Load

A physically demanding task both looks less daunting and feels less daunting when done with a friend. A 2008 study had people alone and in friendship pairs estimate how steep a hill was. The person making the guess wore a backpack with 20% of their weight in it, since that had been shown to make people overestimate the angle. The friends stood three feet apart as one guessed the angle of the hill.

They were asked to guess the slant by making a verbal guess, a visual one by adjusting a disk to match what they believed the hill slant to be, and a haptic guess involving putting a palm on a disk and moving it parallel to the hill’s slant (without looking at the palm). The haptic measure has been shown to be more accurate and less susceptible to outside influences.

Here are the results of the guessing of the hill’s slant:

Friendship Is More Powerful Than We Ever Imagined

And it wasn’t just having a friend nearby that made the hill look less steep. The researchers also asked how long the participants have been friends. And the longer the friendship, the less steep they thought the hill was.

To make sure that it wasn’t the impression that a friend would help with the task that caused the difference, the researchers repeated the experiment. This time, people were asked to visualize a positive, neutral, or negative relationship. Once again, friendship made the hill less steep:

Friendship Is More Powerful Than We Ever Imagined

In the second study, where the participants got to visualize whomever they wanted and not the friend from college they were with, length of friendship meant less:

In contrast to Study 1, there was no significant negative correlation between the verbal and visual estimates of hill slant, and duration of relationship. However, whereas in Study 1 relationship duration ranged from 1 to 40 months, in Study 2 relationship duration ranged from 3 months to 336 months. This extreme variability of friendship duration indicates that the kinds of people considered in Study 2 were qualitatively different from the friends in Study 1, which were all college friends. Friendships made in college by enrolled college students have brief histories—their duration would only rarely be longer than the 4–5 years of a typical undergraduate enrollment. Within this restricted duration, a connection of a year or more will auger greater intimacy than one of just a few weeks or months. For this reason, duration may serve as a sensitive index of relationship strength for college friendships.

Instead, it could be that the difference might correlate to the strength of friendship — which could correlate to time for school friends versus life-long friends or family members. The researchers explained:

In Study 1, friendship duration negatively correlated with visual and verbal hill slope estimates—the longer a friend was known, the less steep the hill appeared. These correlations suggest, but do not confirm, mediation. Such confirmation was supplied by Study 2. Here, the feelings of closeness to the imaged other were correlated to both the verbal and visual hill slop estimates. The closer subjects felt toward their imaged social contacts, the less steep the hill appeared to them. More critically, the effect of support condition on both the visual and verbal hill slant estimates became non-significant after closeness was statistically controlled, and the effect size of support condition on both the verbal and visual measures both dropped from moderate to negligible levels.

If you’re going to do a strenuous task, you may not need a friend to physically lend a hand, so much as just be there with you.

Having close relationships have all sorts of effects. From choosing friends that smell like your relatives, to protecting you from diseases, to making a steep hill look easier to climb. Next time something tough’s coming down to pipeline, imagine your best friend is there with you.

Additional reporting by Levi Gadye


The Father of SETI: Q&A with Astronomer Frank Drake

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The Father of SETI: Q&A with Astronomer Frank Drake

NASA Celebrates Crawler-Transporters’ 1st 50 Years with Test Drive

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NASA Celebrates Crawler-Transporters’ 1st 50 Years with Test Drive

With an eye towards the future, NASA commemorated the first 50 years of its two rocket-carrying crawler-transporters on Monday (Feb. 23) by taking one of the newly-upgraded massive machines out for a test drive to the launch pad.

Crawler-transporter 2, referred to as CT-2, lumbered out of NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building last Wednesday (Feb. 18) to begin the 4.2-mile (6.8 km) trek to Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA invited members of the media and guests to tour the crawler as it arrived at the pad on Monday to mark the tracked vehicle’s first half-century of service.

“This is a historic day witnessing the move of the crawler to Pad 39B,” Lisa DeVries, crawler-transporter lead safety engineer for Cummings Aerospace, said. “Thinking back on all that the crawler has done in the last 50 years, from the Apollo program to the space shuttle program, is really incredible.” [Apollo’s Moon Missions in Photos]

CT-1 and CT-2, dubbed at one point “Hans” and “Franz,” were originally designed and built by Marion Power Shovel of Ohio in the mid-1960s to support NASA’s lunar landing efforts. The two vehicles were needed to move the Saturn V (and later Saturn IB) rockets of the Apollo program from the assembly building out to the launch pad.

Tested during short drives in 1965, the first real use of the crawler-transporter was on May 25, 1966, when the Saturn V 500F, a facilities integration mockup, was moved out to Pad 39A. The crawler transported its first full-up Saturn V, the unmanned Apollo 4 launch vehicle, on Aug. 26, 1967.

With the end of the Apollo program in 1975, the crawlers were modified to support the space shuttle. For 30 years, CT-1 and CT-2 delivered the winged orbiters, mounted to their external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters, to Pads 39A and B for their 135 missions to Earth orbit.

During those three decades, the crawlers were upgraded, including gaining a laser docking system in 1985, enabling them to park within a half- to a quarter-inch of the fixed “dead zero” position at the launch pad and in the Vehicle Assembly Building. In 2004, the vehicles were also each outfitted with a new set of 456 shoes, each weighing 2,100 pounds (950 kilograms), on the eight giant tank-like tracks that propel them forward.

Moving at a top speed of 1 mile per hour (1.6 kph) when loaded, CT-1 has logged a total of 1,960 miles (3,154 km). To date, CT-2 has traveled 2,207 miles (3,552 km) to and from the pads.

With the space shuttle’s retirement almost four years ago, NASA’s Ground Systems Development and Operations Program at the Kennedy Space Center has been focused on “beefing up” CT-2 to be ready to support the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket, targeted to first fly in 2018. CT-1, meanwhile, has been strengthened to handle commercial rockets and spacecraft as needed.

In 2012, CT-2’s original alternating current generators and associated parts were removed. Two new 1,500 kilowatt diesel engines and generators were installed in their place. Work continued through 2014 to modify and upgrade the crawler to extend the life of its onboard systems, including the addition of 88 new traction roller bearing assemblies, a modified lubrication delivery system and new temperature monitoring system.

NASA's Crawler-Transporter 2 on the Crawlerway

NASA’s crawler-transporter 2, also known as CT-2, moves slowly along the crawlerway on a test run to Launch Pad 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Credit: NASA/Cory Huston

The upgrades were necessary to increase the lifted-load capacity of CT-2 from 12 million to 18 million pounds (5.4 to 8.2 million kilograms) to support the weight of the SLS and its Orion crew module on a mobile launcher platform.

“The crawlers are ready to support NASA’s SLS program and commercial missions for the next half century,” John Giles, crawler project deputy manager, said in a statement on Monday.

“I am proud to be a part of the team that is working on the upgrades to CT-2 in support of the SLS program,” DeVries said, “preparing the crawler for the next 50 years of space exploration.”

Click through to for more photographs from Crawler-Transporter-2’s 50th anniversary test drive to the launch pad.

Follow on Facebook and on Twitter at @collectSPACE. Copyright 2015 All rights reserved.

Ancient Bolivians Stripped Flesh from Dead Bodies in Ritual Complex

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Ancient Bolivians Stripped Flesh from Dead Bodies in Ritual Complex

Deadly Gut Bacteria Cause Half a Million Infections Yearly

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Deadly Gut Bacteria Cause Half a Million Infections Yearly

Woman’s Rare Case of ‘Seasonal OCD’ Cured

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Woman’s Rare Case of ‘Seasonal OCD’ Cured

Credit: Dubova/


A rare case of “seasonal” obsessive-compulsive disorder in a woman in highlights the complexity of this mental health condition, researchers say. The woman’s OCD symptoms appeared every year when winter began, and then ended as the seasons shifted toward summer.

After living with the condition for a decade, the woman was treated at a clinic and recovered, the case report said.

Psychiatrists “do believe that there is a tie between times of the year and the exacerbation of illness,” said Dr. Howard L. Forman, an attending psychiatrist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, who was not involved in the woman’s case.

Patients with other mental health conditions, such as depression, may also get worse in the winter and feel better again in the summer, Forman said.

The 41-year-old woman came to an outpatient clinic during the month of October. She said she was having distressing thoughts about dirt and contamination, and that her thoughts were causing her to engage in repetitive cleaning rituals, and to repeat the same words for long periods of time. She said her symptoms had appeared every October for the past 10 years, always disappearing completely by April or May.

But “gradually, over the years, she noted that the severity of her illness increased,” and it was disrupting her life and her relationships, the researchers who treated the woman wrote in the case report. [5 Controversial Mental Health Treatments]

The doctors initially prescribed the woman a drug called fluoxetine, which affects levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain and is used to treat people with OCD and depression. But after a month of that treatment, her condition was not much improved.

The woman then began attending therapy sessions, during which she was gradually exposed to the cues that typically triggered her OCD symptoms, and learned to overcome them. The researchers also prescribed the woman a light treatment, that exposed her to bright light for two hours daily. They thought the seasonal variation in her condition might have something to do with receiving an inadequate amount of light, according to the case report.

The woman’s condition improved after 14 days of the new therapy regimen. The doctors recommended she continue to take the fluoxetine, and the woman’s OCD symptoms did not come back the next winter, according to the report.

Previous research had shown that some OCD patients might indeed experience seasonal variations in symptoms, according to the report.

“I felt like this case is very much clearly a case of seasonality of obsessive compulsive disorder, and I think we should not necessarily be so surprised that this could happen,” Forman said.

It is not exactly clear why some patients with mental health disorders get worse as seasons change, he said. There are seasonal variations inhow much serotonin is produced in the body, with less produced during darker and colder months compared with months that are sunnier and warmer. But there is no convincing evidence that this variation in serotonin production causes the changes in people’s symptoms.

In patients with depression, for instance, it is also possible that less socializing with family and friends during wintertime plays a role in worsening symptoms, Forman said.

The case report was published online Feb. 18 in the Industrial Psychiatry Journal.

Follow Agata Blaszczak-Boxe on Twitter. Follow Live Science@livescience, Facebook & Google+. Originally published on Live Science.

Suicide Rise in Middle-Age Adults Linked to Recession

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Suicide Rise in Middle-Age Adults Linked to Recession