When asked to indicate their “deepest, closest, most intimate relationship,” thirty-six percent of college students name a friend (as opposed to a family member or boyfriend/girlfriend) Friendships are clearly important, but there have been many fewer studies of friends than family or marriage. Consider “locus of control” research (whether individuals blame problems or positive aspects of their relationships on chance/the actions of others, or on their own attitudes and actions). There have been dozens of studies on locus of control and marriage, but only two focusing on friendships, both spearheaded by Marian Morry.
In her most recent study, coauthored with Cheryl Harasymchuk, Morry surveyed 184 college students about their closest friends. The key questions focused on locus of control. This assessment required respondents to indicate on a scale of 0 to 4 how much they agreed with statements like “my enjoyment of a social occasion is almost entirely dependent on the personalities of the other people who are there.” People who agreed most completely with this statement were said to have a high external locus of control. Similar statements were designed to assess the level of internal locus of control.
To assess relationship satisfaction, the students responded to 7 questions such as “How well does your friend meet your needs?” this time on a 7-point scale. Finally, participants were asked how they resolved problems in their friendship (here questions were designed to identify tendencies toward four possible strategies: exit—abandoning the friendship, voice—talking about the problem, loyalty—remaining loyal but not addressing the problem, and neglect—doing nothing).
Then the tables were turned, and respondents were asked how their friends would respond to the same questions (I know, I know, this does seem a bit like the Newlywed Game, but where do you think TV execs get their ideas, anyway?).
All that was left was to analyze the very large data set they obtained. Unlike previous studies, which combined internal and external locus of control into one measure Morry and Harasymchuk analyzed each trait separately. For women, they found that when a friend was perceived to have a high external locus of control, friendship satisfaction tended to be lower. The opposite was found for men: perceiving a high external locus of control for their friends correlated with higher friendship satisfaction. In addition, high friends’ internal locus of control for male friendships correlated with low friendship satisfaction.
Note that the friends themselves were not surveyed—we’re talking about perceived attitudes of friends (and anyone who’s watched the Newlywed Game knows how rarely these perceptions are true). Indeed, the strongest correlations in the entire study were between self-ratings and ratings of friends for the same traits. People tend to believe their friends have the same personality traits as they do themselves, whether or not this is true in reality.
Another interesting difference was revealed in problem-solving behaviors. Women tended to be more satisfied when their friends were perceived to be constructive (i.e. high voice and loyalty ratings) and less destructive (i.e. low exit and neglect ratings). Men, on the other hand, were more satisfied when friends talked about problems but they themselves did not. Women, too, displayed some of this counterintuitive behavior, feeling more satisfied when they simply neglected problems rather than addressing them in some way.
Morry, M.M. & Harasymchuk, C. (2005). Perceptions of locus of control and satisfaction in friendships: The impact of problem-solving strategies. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 22(2), 183-206.