Emily vanSonnenberg, MAPP '10, designed and teaches the UCLAx course, Happiness: Theory, Research, and Application in Positive Psychology. She operates a private practice helping people cultivate meaningful and fulfilling lives, and consults for organizations on how to create desired outcomes and increase well-being. Through her articles and speaking engagements, Emily translates psychological research into practical guidance and goal-directed strategies for the general public. Full Bio. Emily's articles are here.
Have you ever forged a friendship with somebody through shared antipathy?
There are myriad avenues by which two strangers bond and become close friends. Partaking in a co-ed softball league, a book club, or a wine tasting club, introductions through other friends, meeting other moms and dads at parenting classes, meeting people at work and at school are just some examples. These friend-making ways share a common, positively valenced interest. However, sharing a common positive interest or belief is not the only way to forge closeness.
Research has uncovered what may seem to be, at first glance, an unlikely factor that promotes closeness in relationships. Researchers Weaver and Bosson, at the University of South Florida, recently discovered that when two strangers each possess a shared, strongly held negative attitude about a third party, this predicted an increase in liking and feelings of closeness with each other. Does this apply to you?
The Need for BalanceMany years ago, social psychologist, Fritz Heider, found that individuals seek balance in their relationships. Balance in relationships motivates action in relationships. Individuals desire a consistency between their thoughts, feelings, and social relationships. This desire for consistency yields an attraction toward a balanced state in which two individuals either like or dislike each other. If both parties like each other, the relationship is balanced. If both parties dislike each other, that, too, is balanced.
Another way of understanding balance comes from the laws of multiplication. A positive times a positive equals a positive; a negative times a negative equals a positive. A negative times a positive yields a negative. If, for example, X likes Y, while Y dislikes X, the relationship is imbalanced. In the case of a third party entering into an already balanced dyad, psychological balance is achieved if each member of the dyad possesses either a similar positive or negative attitude about the third party. Thus, according to Heider and recent research, balance promotes liking and friendship formation.
What is the Draw of Shared Negative Attitudes?
Why, then, do people tend to like and feel closer to a stranger with whom they share a strongly held negative attitude about another person? The answer to this seems to be twofold.
First, Anderson and other researchers have found that people tend to weigh negative information more heavily on their perceptions of another person than they do positive information. In his research at Florida State University, social psychologist Roy Baumeister found, “Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good.” All in all, negative/bad information tends to carry more psychological weight than comparable positive/good information.The second explanation elaborates on the first in the context of social norms. When meeting people, an implicitly accepted social norm is that people who say positive things about others are easy to like and people will want to be around them.
However research finds that positive information is less revealing of the speaker, and less valuable to the listener than the implicit information conveyed by a negative belief. When a speaker breaks the socially accepted norm by disclosing a negative belief, the speaker implicitly signals to the listener that the listener is trusted. The speaker is willing to take the risk of being disliked, even in initial meetings with strangers. In turn, when the speaker takes the risk to be honest and discloses a negative belief, he or she allows other people to feel they know the speaker better, which fosters closeness. As a result of this level of disclosure, others are then more likely to open up.
Negative Gossip as Social Glue?This level of honest disclosure facilitates social bonding. One researcher, Dunbar, has even gone so far as to theorize that negatively valenced gossip is an important evolved mechanism for bonding among social groups. This theory has been corroborated by the recent research by Weaver and Bosson: sharing a mutually held negative belief about a specific other can help solidify the relationship by increasing feelings of closeness and solidarity, thus cementing social bonds.
An additionally striking finding by Bosson and colleagues states that people recalled discovering more shared dislikes of others than liking for others when first getting to know the people who eventually became their closest friends. Their findings showed that holding similar negative attitudes about others is especially effective in promoting closeness between people.
Reflecting on Friendships
Upon reflecting on this research as it applies to my life, I focus on the relationships I’ve maintained for three decades. These relationships are reciprocal, additive in specific ways that I choose to value, and are abundant with mutual love and respect. A quality that each of these relationships also possesses is an uncanny, explicit honesty about beliefs that some may deem negative.
This quality was nascent at the onset of my initial meetings with each of my longest, closest most valued relationships. In those important initial moments, the now 30-year friendships were at a pivotal moment of risk. We could either remain on the safe surface of minimal disclosure of beliefs, or we could risk dislike and choose a medium-level of disclosure that could prompt a closeness that would bond us for life. Fortunately, we chose the latter. We learned more about one another’s values and beliefs right away.
In this research, and in our lives, what may be viewed as scary and negative can produce a positive. And I feel gratitude for such closeness in relationships. I wonder what others have experienced in their lives regarding this topic of ‘the negativity and closeness effect on friendship formation.’
Anderson, N. H. (1965). Averaging versus adding as a stimulus-combination rule in impression formation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2, 1-9.
Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323-370.
Baumeister, R. F., Zhang, L., & Vohs, K. D. (2004). Gossip as cultural learning. Review of General Psychology, 8, 111-121.
Bosson, J. K., Johnson, A. B., Niederhoffer, K., & Swann, W. B., Jr. (2006). Interpersonal chemistry through negativity: Bonding by sharing negative attitudes about others. Personal Relationships, 13, 135-150.
Dunbar, R. I. M. (2004). Gossip in evolutionary perspective. Review of General Psychology, 8, 100-110.
Derlega, V. J., & Chaikin, A. L. (1977). Privacy and self-disclosure in social relationships. Journal of Social Issues, 33(3), 102-115. Abstract.
Hannerz, U. (1967). Gossip networks and culture in a Black American ghetto. Ethnos, 32, 35-59.
Heider, F. (1946). Attitudes and cognitive organization. Journal of Psychology, 21, 107-112.
Leaper, C., & Holliday, H. (1995). Gossip in same-gender and cross-gender friends’ conversations. Personal Relationships, 2, 237-246. Abstract.
Weaver, J. R., and Bosson, J. K. (2011). I feel like I know you: Sharing negative attitudes of others promotes feelings of familiarity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. doi: 10.1177/0146167211398364. Abstract.