Home All The Negativity and Closeness Effect: Understanding Friendship Formation

The Negativity and Closeness Effect: Understanding Friendship Formation

written by Emily vanSonnenberg 14 April 2011

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 Balance

   An Impossible Triangle

Many 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.

Revealing Self

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?

   Sharing the negative

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.

Friendship sign courtesy of tinou bao
Impossible triangle courtesy of yui.kubo
Authenticity courtesy of assbach
Friends in the rain courtesy of h.koppdelaney

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Angus 14 April 2011 - 11:35 am

What a profoundly interesting article Emily. My instant response is that I think you are on to something huge. Our capacity to identify with and against is such a strong dynamic, globally. I shall go read more of what you have written. Thank you. Angus

bob 14 April 2011 - 11:54 am

our strong negative bias’ are supportive as the data suggests,and they also support our habit of judgment. talking over our negative bias’ with our closest friends might be a great way to consciously take an inventory of our “judgments” and see if they’re in our best interest.

Angus 14 April 2011 - 1:12 pm

So A opposes C, as does B. In that they find commonality. A&B bind, in opposition as you say. They are opposed to C. Yet why? There must be a D (driver) that they share in their opposition. Is that what brings folk together? Let’s hope so..

oz 14 April 2011 - 2:47 pm

Emily – I see it in my work all the time – a bad manager who unites their reports.

However as you say the common dislike bonds the group – acts as a catalyst to from closer relationships where the positive and negative are both treated with respect.

Great article.

Emily vanSonnenberg 19 April 2011 - 12:07 am

Thank you all ~ Angus, bob, and Oz ~ for your feedback and points shared. This is such a fascinating topic to discuss and I enjoy your input!

@Angus, Thank you for provoking deeper exploration and inquisition into this topic for discussion. As you note, A&B do bind in opposition–this opposition is focused on a specific entity/being (e.g., C). So, your question is interesting… Yes–the D (driver) is a shared–or adjacent–belief that enables the chosen perspectives (i.e., D motivating the belief of C) to exist independently and respectively to both A & B. In other words, if A & B were alone in their own homes & never encountered one another, each would still have a belief about C, and this belief about C is a function of the D (driver)–which, may be the same or different/adjacent (as a driver). Now, once A & B come out of their homes and meet, and C comes up in conversation, both A & B will unite because they share the same *final* belief about C–which is, they do not like C; however, their D (drive) that landed each of them–independently–at their belief of C may differ. Here’s a specific, fiction-based example: Let’s say that I don’t like Bill Maher and neither does my friend, Oscar. This shared belief allows us to bond–and informs us about the other person. However, I may not like Bill Maher because he dated my friend and cheated on her. Oscar, on the other hand, may not like Bill Maher because he finds his style and presentation to be arrogant. My and Oscar’s D (drivers) are different, but they produce the same effect: we both do not like Bill Maher. Of course, we could both possess the same D–and simply dislike Maher’s arrogant style and presentation. Either way–a shared D or not–we both bond over not liking Bill Maher. And, our mutual dislike may even further enhance our bonding because, as friends, we respect each other’s perspectives, and so may be further influenced by the new information we learn about our beliefs of Maher (C)–enabling us to bond over more information that we learn about the other’s perspective of Maher. Oscar could learn that I do not respect infidelity, and I could learn that Oscar dislikes arrogance. Learning these two moral and character-based values that both Oscar I hold as sacred allow us to further learn and respect each other in ways we did not previously know. Does this make sense?



Catherine 19 April 2011 - 9:04 pm

What an amazing article by an amazing individual.

arik 20 April 2011 - 1:28 am

I agree that a bond is shared.

But i am curious whether it is truly the basis for a lasting bond. It may provide some “initial glue” for the relationship, but thats all. I appreciate that it is self revealing & an opening for a relationship to form. But if that is the basis for the relationship then I believe it may be doomed & will give negative feedback.

For example when people complain to me about others, i may relate to their comments on one level, but if it continues on to others, I can then also imagine them complaining about me similarly – they then become part of the problem. Dwelling on the negative becomes a downer for all concerned after a while – it promotes the victim mentality.If a relationship thrives on the negative that ultimatley the relationship can not be positive and flourish.

For example I do not like participating in gossip with people. I find it negative and soul destroying. In a way its getting satisfaction from others misfortune or wishing them badly. Promoting and focusing on the negatives of others cannot be good for the soul.

Leona B 20 April 2011 - 11:37 am

Em, totally fascinating exploration of this subject. It makes sense to me that sharing negative opinions would have a bonding effect, as risk is amplified. And yet another example of how the negative seems to command our attention more strongly.

Bullying is a hot topic in schools these days – and your remark about “shared antipathy” seems to characterize a bullying ‘clique.’ Do you have any thoughts on how this type of research might be applied to minimize toxic social gossip such as that?

Thanks for the thought provoker! You’ve got me noodling about how this applies in workplaces too.


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