Psychology of Social Connection

The Power Of Society’s Most Underappreciated Relationship

March 25th, 2022 · 18 Comments

This week, our class considered “friendship” in its broadest possible terms. We talked about connections so transient that one party never learns the other’s name—but we also talked about how to make deep friendships last a lifetime, and about what makes relationships easy or difficult. To capture our entire week’s worth of content, we (your blog post writers) each focused on a different tier of friendship. Stephanie wrote about weak ties, Esther wrote about the importance of connection, and Iris wrote about individual differences in friendship. Thanks for reading!

Stephanie (weak ties):

As important as our close friendships are, weak ties also have many important benefits and play an important role in our wellbeing.​​ Think about the person that always holds the door open for you before class or maybe the Black Sheep worker that knows your order by heart. Those people, even though you might only just know their name, are an important part of your daily life and have an effect on your need to belong. As we learned in the lecturette, people with more weak ties and acquaintances have greater creativity, perspective taking, empathic accuracy and well being.  

In the reading by Sandstrom & Dunn (2014), there is evidence that proves how weak ties have important benefits such as the diffusion of information. The study shows how people who interacted with more classmates reported greater happiness. I definitely agree with that and feel that on days where I have a lot of class, even though I am more busy I feel happier to be around people as opposed to just sitting around in my room alone. The paper extends to show how with more daily interactions with weak ties, people are happier and experience greater feelings of belonging. Overall, we find that people in general feel a greater sense of belonging with more weak ties. 

More personally, I can think of certain weak ties in my life that create a sense of normalcy as well as always put a smile on my face. One in particular, is a HUDS employee who I see every day at dinner time. Without fail, we say hello to each other every day and as how the other’s day has been. Sometimes we catch up about each other’s breaks or weekends as well as upcoming events in the house. Even though I would not consider her to be a close friend of mine, I definitely rely and always count on that relationship to always put a smile on my face. Another acquaintance that I interact with daily is somebody that I often see in the dining hall. Even though we just met this year, I feel I am always greeted with a big smile and we sometimes sit together to have a meal. While it is not somebody that I interact with often, he is definitely someone that is part of my daily routine that I can learn a lot from. 

However, the concept of weak ties was especially hard during COVID, when we were unable to leave our houses and interact in our normal ways. It was a strange shift to go from seeing many people in a day to only seeing faces over zoom classes. However, even so, I also found ways to create weak ties, like waving and talking to people in the neighborhood when I would go on my daily walks. Therefore no matter the setting or circumstances, interacting with different people can not only expand your relationships of weak ties, but can also lead you to create more friendships. Whether it is one thing that connects you to someone else or a shared experience you are a part of, weak ties are integral to our lives. 

Esther (importance of ties):

“You’re my person.”

“My person” made its first appearance in 2005 on “Grey’s Anatomy,” showcasing Cristina Yang and Meredith Grey’s intimate friendship. The term’s charm is that it isn’t defined by blood or law. Your person is your best soul friend, ride or die, platonic life partner. They might stay the same or change. The phrase was coined when it became evident that millennials put off marriage to focus on their friendships and professions. Despite these changes, the notion that a monogamous love partnership is the planet around which all other relationships should revolve hasn’t changed. We need a phrase for the humans who show up for us as Cristina and Meredith do for each other until there is a life partner in the picture, or even if there never is.

Despite their importance, friendships are understudied compared to other intimate relationships, while romantic relationships have gotten a lot more attention. (Pratscher et al., 2018).

Active friendships require active maintenance. You get to sit back, do nothing, and enjoy the benefits of a meaningful relationship. But action is especially important to friendship which carries no familiar expectations. If you don’t take action to mark it as important and keep it alive, a friendship will not survive. However, placing a friendship at the center of one’s life unsettles the norm (Cohen, 2020). I want a world where friendship is appreciated more. I want holidays to commemorate friendship. I want thousands of songs, movies, and poems about the intimacy and connection between friends. 

Harvard can be a lonely place. It can feel like standing in the middle of a crowded intersection with everyone around you and no one around you at the same time. The loneliness can be crippling and suffocating. I often invalidate my own feelings, especially when I’m not as “smiley” as people usually think I am. Despite advice that I give to others, I find myself feeling that I don’t “deserve” to be upset – to feel what I feel – because my problems will only burden others for the worse if I share them with them. 

Ultimately, people will notice that there is more to you than you let on. They will look at you closely and listen to you attentively enough to know that there are stories hidden in your bones that you’ve never told anyone. Such people will ask you about things that others never made an effort to understand. They will come to value who you are because they will take the time to really know your story. Sometimes souls instantly click. Some friendships allow us to feel safe like home. These bonds are special and last forever no matter what city you live in or how often you talk. I’m forever grateful for the people in my life who know this side of me and offer me encouragement, support, and an outlet to express myself. They let me feel that it’s okay to not be okay and to let down my facade at times. So, if you ever see me on campus, feel free to say hi – I promise you it will make me happier than I already am! 🙂

Iris (lack of ties):

In the toddler class I teach this year, I have an autistic kid whom I’ll call F. F is adored by all the grown-ups in his life, I assume because he’s unusually adorable. In addition to winning people over with his goofy laugh and enthusiastic opinions, his favorite toy is a plush egg, which, how could anyone not fall for that? One of my co-teachers just bought a bubble gun solely because it made F. smile. His fan club includes most of the adults who’ve ever met him. 

F. struggles to communicate with his peers, however, and the biggest fear I have for him is that as a nonverbal person, he’ll have a hard time making friends. One can (and activists rightfully do) blame an unjust society for its lack of acceptance—but even if the deficit lies with the world and not with F., the result is the same. I don’t want him to be lonely. The readings this week were somewhat damning for folks like F. McPherson et al.’s “Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks” (2001) compiles evidence suggesting that similarity undergirds friendship; F.’s brain works in a demonstrably different way than his peers’. Pratscher et al.’s “Interpersonal Mindfulness” (2017) puts stock in our ability to take others’ perspectives; F. is specifically bad at basic theory-of-mind tasks. It would be easy to look at F., as many have, and write off his ability to form social relationships. In general, our readings this week support that narrative.

And yet. I wonder, when I think about F. and his future, if my neurotypical frame of reference is capable of comprehending how he wants to relate to others. Does my conceptualization of friendship—informed by studies of college students who are likely, in aggregate, neurotypical—pertain to his experience of the world? What if he doesn’t want friends the way I want friends for him? Who am I to tell anyone that they are socially suffering? While I did the readings this week, I couldn’t get past the lingering thought—influenced by F.—that these studies leave people out. It is notoriously easy to nitpick psychology research, but the examples of exclusion are endless: disabled folks. People from non-western countries. Older adults or younger children. It is not obvious that these data on college students are applicable to other types of humans. 

Accordingly, while neurodiversity represents a specific case, I find the question of group differences in friendship attitudes to be more broadly interesting. Proximity may be useful, except when it isn’t; weak ties could be helpful unless, like F., your discomfort around strangers supersedes any benefit. I understand the impossibility of designing a perfect study, and the utility of studying something anyway. But I also think—at least when considering how I personally define a friend—that it is at least as important to remember marginal experiences as it is to attend to the dominant narratives we promote around friendship.

References 

Cohen, R. (2020). What if friendship, not marriage, was at the center of life? The Atlantic.

McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Cook, J. M. (2001). Birds of a feather: Homophily in social networks. Annual Review of Sociology, 27(1), 415–444.

Pratscher, S. D., Rose, A. J., Markovitz, L., & Bettencourt (2018). Interpersonal mindfulness: Investigating mindfulness in interpersonal interactions, co-rumination, and friendship quality. Mindfulness, 9(4), 1206-1215.

Sandstrom, G. M., & Dunn, E. W. (2014). Social interactions and well-being: The surprising power of weak ties. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(7), 910-922. 

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18 responses so far ↓

  • Do Kim // Mar 26th 2022 at 8:19 am

    Hi Stephanie, thanks for an interesting blogpost! I really enjoyed your discussion of weak ties and loved the examples you provided. Prior to being exposed to the term “weak ties” I never really knew how to characterize interactions like the ones you described, where you don’t really know much about the person, and it may seem too soon to call them a friend, but there is an aspect to the interaction that one looks forward to! Although we read about positive effects that weak tie social connections can have, I think your section really helped contextualize that. Another thing that it made me think about is the power that each individual weak tie connection could have on one’s happiness. What happens if one day, you approach the HUDS worker and they walk right past you or you make eye contact with the peer in the dining hall and they just look away? I can imagine that this would have a substantial effect on one’s day, and increasingly so and the interactions become more routine, which also helps to emphasize how important these weak tie connections can be!

  • Spencer Carter // Mar 26th 2022 at 9:32 pm

    Iris,

    It was really interesting, but sad, reading about how F.’s psychological traits fit into the picture that the readings painted of the psychological underpinnings of friendship. It must feel painful for many of the people in F.’s life to simultaneously recognize how wonderful of a kid he is and to acknowledge how difficult his social life will likely be as he gets older. Although F. will be fighting an uphill battle, I hope that some of his peers can accept him for who he is one day.

    Stephanie,

    Your piece did a great job of helping me to appreciate the familiar faces in my life of people whom I may not always interact with, but who add normalcy, stability, and texture to my day-to-day experiences. Thank you.

    Esther,

    I really appreciated the vulnerability you showed in your piece and how you championed friendship, the often-underappreciated counterpart to romantic relationships. Your post was a great reminder to take friendships seriously and work to actively maintain and strengthen them.

  • Georgia Steigerwald // Mar 27th 2022 at 1:45 pm

    Hi!

    Thank you all for your post!

    Iris–thank you so much for sharing your experience with F. I found your point about F maybe not wanting to have the same types of ties really interesting. An open question for the group (because I’m not sure what the answer is) what do ties/friendships look like for autistic people? Is the need to belong similar? Is it expressed differently? Or is it completely different altogether?

    Stephanie–I totally relate to missing weak tie interactions during the pandemic. I’ve been trying to reflect on the days I feel my best. Are they days I had a lot of quality time with close friends? Or days where I had many smaller, positive interactions with acquaintances? For me I think it is often a mix, and not having any access to those smaller, though meaningful, interactions really took a toll on me throughout the pandemic.

    Thank you all again!

  • Kara Xie // Mar 27th 2022 at 2:35 pm

    Stephanie – I really liked hearing about the literature on weak ties that we read and how it relates to everyday interactions we have – HUDS workers, Black Sheep bagel cashier who knows my order, etc. The literature makes sense with my COVID experience as well. It’s the little interactions that were robbed from us during quarantine. No dhall hellos, impromptu run ins that give us a little sense of belonging and warmth.

    Esther – I love the Greys Anatomy reference! And I also agree about the loneliness of Harvard sometimes – it’s so easy to be overlooked and left behind on a campus that is so fast paced. I like the line you had about friends will “take the time to really know your story”. Friendship is a journey and as more and more of the story is uncovered, there is a deeper and more active connection.

    Iris – Such a unique perspective on friendship! I really felt the sentiment of “What if he doesnt want friends the way I want friends for him?” In restaurants, if I see someone eating alone I cannot help but feel sympathy and feel bad. My immediate reaction is that they are lonely, when really it could be a preference of theirs to eat alone and they are perfectly content. It’s interesting to put literature and what we know about friendship and place this schema onto other people.

  • Summer Cai // Mar 27th 2022 at 3:13 pm

    Thanks Stephanie, Esther and Iris for your great post!

    Esther, thank you for being up the fact that psychology studies and our pop culture tends to focus way too much on romantic relationship compared to friendship, family relationship and other types of important intimate relationships! I believe as people (especially more women) delay marriage and family to pursue higher education, friendship, peers and even acquaintances will have more and more influence on our lives and worldviews than the traditional exclusive romantic partner. I would like to challenge the traditional view of the one best friend too. When I was a little girl, I used to dream to find one person, “my person”, who would stick through with me as a “quasi-life partner”. I had someone like that in elementary, middle and maybe even high school, but I realized this kind of relationship is much less ideal as I imagined. People move away, grow apart all the time and I want my personal space more as I grow up. Now, I have a few good friends but not really a best friend. I appreciate friendship as a special type of rewarding relationship that is open, voluntary and based on attraction and mutual caring and I wish they will be more media/studies that focus on this special kind of bond as it is.

    I think this also connects very well to Iris point about how psychology research is often limitedly focused on a very particular group of individuals: young college students in a psychology class. This is potentially very problematic because as we read, we are actually a very “weird” population in turns of friendships and intimate relationships. We spend a lot of time with friends compared with families and significant others and have a much higher level of need to belong. Therefore, we should really consider (even more than we are currently) our ability to generalize results found in college students to the greater population. Though many psychologists want a more diverse sample population, one of the greatest outstanding challenges is how to engage people outside of the “young college students in a psychology class” clique. This is a question that I unfortunately don’t have a good answer to.

  • Sierra Agarwal // Mar 28th 2022 at 9:53 am

    Stephanie, your point about how there is a greater sense of belonging when people engage in more weak ties immediately made me think about a few things. One, how are these weak tied valued, and how much value does it take for them to have an impact on us? Two, what is the role and the impact of gender on these weak ties? For instance, how does a weak tie with the same gender differ in the level of impact from a weak tie with the opposite gender? Awesome read!

    Esther, I really like the way your started one of your paragraphs by saying “Active friendships require active maintenance.” I think this captures the importance of what a friendship entails in the sense that in order for a friendship to seem lively and as if it is always there, is requires care, time and effort. To me, sometimes it seems that friendships come so naturally for some people. However, something that is important to keep in mind is how long will that friendship really last, even if it does come naturally?

    Great read!

  • Anthony Nelson // Mar 28th 2022 at 4:37 pm

    Thank you Stephanie, Esther, and Iris for this extremely interesting blog post. Stephanie I really found your post relevant and very interesting. Similarly to your point I also consistently have a small conversation with our dining hall chef and despite not knowing him beyond a shallow conversational level I would 100% notice if that part of my day was removed. Esther, I really enjoyed reading your section. It seemed very genuine and extremely relatable when thinking back on how fast everything was going freshman year. Along with all the stress of figuring out classes, roommates etc..

  • Patrick S // Mar 28th 2022 at 5:13 pm

    Stephanie, loved your anecdote about the Black Sheep worker knowing your order by heart! In general, you had some great personal anecdotes about how daily interactions are influenced by weak-ties. When we think about the impact that certain people have on our lives, we often don’t think of these weak-ties, but rather focus on our close relationships. However, you’ve demonstrated that the weak-tie interactions that we have can have an additive positive effect on our well-being.

    Esther, your part of the blog post illuminated the difficulties that we sometimes go through in communicating how we feel in certain friendships. While some friendships may seem “close”, we may still not feel comfortable in expressing exactly how we feel in them. You outlined how our closeness with others can also have a crippling effect, as we feel that we don’t want to burden our friends with our problems. Ultimately, as you wrote, the sign of a true friendship is when we can unequivocally tell another person how we feel, and know that they will support us, regardless of what we are going through.

    Iris, I thought your highlight on the blind-spots that research can have on particular subsets of the population was illuminating. When we think about how psychology research can be applied to other settings, it is important to note how certain research can be specialized to a certain population (young college students), and that certain studies won’t necessarily be applicable to other demographics. Your blog post really emphasized the importance of note generalizing the research we read about to fit every single person, but to rather continue to try and analyze on a smaller, individual basis.

  • Gayoung Choi // Mar 28th 2022 at 9:39 pm

    Stephanie, reading your portion of the blog post made me think about my experience with weak ties. At first, I thought to myself, “how powerful could weak ties be?” But then on second thought, they really affect me too! I thought about how much I would prefer walking through the bustling Yard to walking in solitude along the River. I thought about how even short interactions with many people make me happier than a long interaction with just one person. I want to try going a week of recognizing and appreciating the weak ties I have.

  • Michael Pankowski // Mar 28th 2022 at 11:25 pm

    Thanks for this blog post, Stephanie, Esther, & Iris.
    Stephanie,
    I agree with your thoughts on weak ties. I have to say, until Covid, I didn’t give much thought to weak ties. I wonder, did you always know that these weak ties had a positive effect on your life, or did you realize that at a later time, like I did? And I especially liked your part about saying hi to the HUDS workers; I do that too, and it’s one of my favorite parts of the day. It’s nice that it gets to happen every day, and I always appreciate when they say hi to me — as I’m sure they do when I say hi as well. I really missed those interactions during Covid, as I’m sure lots of people did. Thanks for contributing your thoughts!

    Esther,
    Thanks so much for your touching post. You are an incredible writer; I really appreciate you sharing this with us. I think lots of people here agree that Harvard can be lonely, but not many people are comfortable saying it. I’m glad you are, because the more people that acknowledge it and are open about it, the better chance it has of changing. This kind of sentiment is part of why our final project in this class is so important — hopefully the university will implement some of our ideas to make people feel more connected at this school. This post was really well done — you should write more, because your words can help a lot of people.

    Iris,
    I really enjoyed this post. Your writing on F is so important to the psychological community and to the world in general — lots of times people only consider those who look/act like them. The psych community has come a long way from the days where studies were only done by white men, studying white men, but there’s so much work to be done, which your post helps illuminate. This is a conversation that we need to be having more in every discipline, and in the world. Keep talking about this — it’s important for F, and all of us.

  • Maya Dubin // Mar 29th 2022 at 2:11 pm

    Stephanie – I thought you provided a great reflection on the importance of weak ties specifically with your example of your relationship with the HUDS worker. I thought that was really sweet!

    Esther – I am curious to know your perspective on the fact that your “my person” can change and the fluctuations that exist within that. I feel as though I have always wanted someone to be “my person” but that isn’t always the case. It reminds me of the idea of a “soulmate” do these really exist or is it just a construct we make to try and feel better about the relationships we form. I would be curious to know your take on this.

    Iris – Thank you for sharing this VERY important critique of the reading. Your story of F is a compelling contradiction to the evidence suggested in the “Birds of Feather” paper. I would also argue that similarity does not always lead to friendship and define friendship. While I personally believe friendship comes from a space of love and connection those words provide little concrete evidence. It is important that the people doing the research on the narrative of friendship take into account stories like F’s to make a more comprehensive definition and narrative around friendship.

  • Julia Prior // Mar 30th 2022 at 2:33 pm

    Great blog post!

    Stephanie – I really enjoyed reading your perspective on the weak ties that have been significant in your life. Although I had not considered weak ties much before this unit on friendship, I’ve begun to acknowledge more of these small encounters that bring normalcy to my life and improve my day. It is especially interesting that during COVID when we didn’t have these weak ties, there was a noticeable lack and many of us sought small ways to have these experiences again.

    Esther – Love the Grey’s Anatomy reference! I often call my best friend “my person.” It’s interesting that friendships are understudied in comparison to other intimate relationships, when friendships are one of the greatest cures to loneliness. I agree with your sentiment on wanting a world where friendships are appreciated more, and I wonder if are moving towards a world where there will be more of a focus on friendships, as views on romantic relationships change.

    Iris – I really appreciate your story on F. and how you higlighted using college students as the primary sample may not make results generalizable for other populations. I had not considered how our conceptualization of friendship and frame of reference may make it so that we cannot imagine other narratives of friendship, and perhaps future research can use more diverse populations to discover complex findings and perspectives.

  • Tom Aicardi // Mar 30th 2022 at 10:10 pm

    Thank you for you thoughtful blog posts Stephanie, Esther, and Iris!

    Was great reading all your blogs! I resonate and agree with Stephanie’s discussion of the importance of weak ties and agree that it was very difficult to get those interactions during COVID. Similar to your experience, I was able to interact with my neighbors occasionally during the year at home, but it was very tough to form new relationships with people at Harvard during classes on Zoom. Often times, the classes on Zoom and the breakout rooms contained nothing but awkward silence between classmates. The Sandstrom & Dunn (2014) study showed that weak ties are important to one’s overall well-being and I am sure we all felt the effects of not having these weak ties during the COVID year.

  • Helena Jiang // Apr 2nd 2022 at 4:09 pm

    Stephanie, it’s so heartwarming to hear about all the small relationships you’ve been able to create just walking through every day life at Harvard, whether it’s speaking to the HUDS worker every day or even meeting with a recent friend in the dining hall, and it’s so important to realize how important these seemingly meaningless relationships are; they truly are integral to our lives. Esther, I love the Grey’s Anatomy reference – I’ve always loved the “You’re my person” quote! It really is true that Harvard, and college as a whole, even though it’s a time of meeting lots of new people, can be extremely lonely. As always, please don’t be too hard on yourself – not everyone is expected to be “smiley” all the time, and having more than one side is so humanizing. Iris, thank you so much for sharing your story with F; an experience like yours can be so incredibly eye-opening, and so inspirational as you really are able to learn so much from the people that you meet. It really makes us start questioning the things and definitions we take as true or given, which is something that is actually quite important to the world.

  • Lane // Apr 9th 2022 at 6:29 pm

    Stephanie — thanks for sharing your thoughts on weak ties. I agree with the wealth of benefits weak ties have had in my life as well. That being said, I’ve found that poor interactions or conflicts with weak ties tend to bother me a lot more than scuffles with strong ties, so weak ties are more of a double-edged sword for me. I think a large reason for this is that there is less familiarity with weak ties and so interactions involve more uncertainty, specifically about whether a weak tie will continue to be a positive relationship after one negative interaction.

  • Sofie Fella // Apr 19th 2022 at 1:53 pm

    Esther – When reading your post about “my person,” I immediately thought of “my lobster” from Friends. They use “my lobster” in Friends for the person who you’re supposed to be with in life because lobsters mate for life. This was interesting because “my person” wasn’t necessarily used for a romantic partner whereas “my lobster” is supposed to be for the romantic partner in your life. So maybe we need our person and our lobster haha!

    I always sit and wonder about the different types of love we have for different relationships in our lives. For example, I feel like the love we have for best friends is just such a different feeling than what we feel for our families and also for our romantic partners. I’ve experienced many situations where you really just need your romantic partner to make you feel better over your best friend. I remember learning about these different types of love like agape, eros and philia. It’d be interesting to do more research into these areas and how this shows up in our daily lives.

  • Patrick Walsh // Apr 24th 2022 at 9:56 pm

    Thank you Stephanie, Esther and Iris for your thoughtful blog post.

    Stephanie – I thought your post on weak ties was extremely interesting and something that I had not really thought about before covid when all of these quick interactions were taken away. I also realized how much these small interactions with people I barely know boosted my day and I often took them for granted. One person that I often have these kinds of weak tie interactions with is the cook at the dining hall. Every time I go in there to get food I say hi to him and often will have a short conversation. These small interactions I have with him and other members of the huds staff definitely have a noticeable impact on my day, and I would absolutely notice if this part of my day was missing.

  • Arlo Sims // May 5th 2022 at 12:22 am

    Stephanie, it was really interesting reading what you wrote about weak ties. When I think about weak ties bringing happiness, I always am reminded of freshman year. I feel like this year was when I had the most weak ties. There were so many faces that I knew and said hi to everyday. Annenberg in particular was a space full of weak ties and short but uplifting interactions. As a super senior, I don’t see nearly as many people I know around, and I’ve actually noticed that I feel a little more lonely / not part of the community because of it. It is interesting thinking about negative weak tie interactions in relation to positive ones. While I pretty much always have good interactions with HUDS workers, there is a lady who works at fly-by who is actually quite negative a lot of the time. I’ve forgotten a spoon and got a rude look, or wanted to switch a sandwich and been told I can’t. It seems she has the assumption that most people are bad or something, and the negative energy sometimes seems to rub off on me after I leave flyby. In this case, a negative weak tie interaction almost feels more intense and a negative interaction with someone you know.

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