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Thursday, April 26, 2018

The benefits of having friends who are not like us

Por Jade

Having a strong network of friends has many advantages, from receiving support when one is having a bad time to having a group to share ideas. But could we be missing something if we only get together with people who are like us? For many of us, the people we see regularly represent a defining part of our lives. Friends help us understand our place in the world and research shows that friendship is associated with reducing anxiety.

There is increasing evidence that people tend to make friends with people similar to them. It is possible that we can all benefit from the expansion of the circles in which we move. For example, mixing with diverse groups can stimulate creativity and benefit individuals and society.

The impact that our social environment has on strengthening our opinions is an area that researchers are studying. The attitudes we hold most firmly guide the way we see the world and are more resistant to being changed by the persuasion of other people. We often seek, process and retain information that confirms our point of view, while discarding the one that does not agree with our opinions.

An example of this "confirmation bias" can be seen in the way we listen to the opinions of others about Brexit. The majority moves in social environments made up of people with the same positions and interests, while a small minority mixes with people with a wider range of views and opinions. As the groups become more diverse, the evidence suggests that their members are more likely to be persuaded and their attitudes towards a particular issue become less rigid.

In the case of Brexit, many of us have had that moment when we noticed that everyone we know has the same opinion. That explains why if you are a remainer (supporter of the permanence of the United Kingdom in the European Union) you will have been surprised by the result of the referendum. However, if you are a leaver (supporter of UK exit in the EU), the result may have seemed more obvious to you; after all, most people you know have that opinion.

This is a current example where people hold divergent positions. The tendency summarized in the saying "Birds of a feather flock together" - a behavior that sociologists call homophily - often reinforces stereotypes about our own group and those of others. It can happen in many ways: for example, children grouped in school cafeterias, either by ethnic characteristics or other intuitively less obvious factors such as haircutting style or wearing glasses.

We will soon discover that our social world is divided into age ranges, social classes, political visions, religion and race. Additional psychological biases appear later. For example, we will see our group as the "best" - most interesting, entertaining and informed - and other less favorable groups. In the worst case, we can go from a slight preference for our own group to an active rejection towards others. As groups break up, they may end up living in different neighborhoods, going to different schools and believing in different "facts."

Ignorance of the habits, beliefs and feelings of others can shape our idea of the world, while we tend to use stereotypes to make sense of the people we meet on a regular basis. Despite that, the researchers argue that having friends who belong to other groups can be good for us. It can reduce the anxiety when mixing with people who "are not like us" and to dispel negative expectations when interacting with them.

This, in turn, can lead to more positive attitudes for other groups in general. It allows and encourages us to take the perspectives of members of other groups and to feel more empathy towards them. A surprising effect of contact with a different group - for example, homosexuals or people with more or less money than us-is that it can help us change our attitudes. These contacts seem to reduce prejudice, polarization and segregation.

The way in which contact with other groups changes our attitudes has been verified in countless studies in the world. Many of these investigations began in the United States, where the study of relationships in schools between white and black students showed that contact reduces prejudice. Other successful examples of those contacts, collected by a research team at Oxford University, include Catholics and Protestants from Northern Ireland; Malaysians, Chinese and Indians in Malaysia and Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots in Cyprus.

Recently, researchers found that the fusion of schools previously created for white British and for British Asians in Oldham, led to more positive attitudes among each other and the formation of more mixed groups of friends. Of course, in many places the groups still live segregated. But indirect contacts between them can lead to a change of attitudes. For example, meeting other groups through mutual friends has helped reduce prejudice levels almost as effectively as direct contact.

People have also been seen changing their attitudes towards other groups after watching movies or television shows that portray members of those groups. For example, an investigation into the comedy Will and Grace, which focuses on the friendship between a heterosexual woman and a homosexual man, concluded that attitudes towards gays are more positive among those who see more episodes. These results do not only manifest themselves among those who choose to watch those programs.

Through experiments that randomly selected people to watch programs such as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, it was found that they were more likely to reduce the levels of prejudice than those who had seen other programs. Contact, however, is not a panacea against prejudice. Its effectiveness is limited by the continuous segregation or where the sense of threat is perceived when the groups are mixed, confirming the prejudices. More than 60 years of research - from North America to Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia - indicate that contact between groups is a powerful tool for improving relationships. In many cases, it will see us living together in a more positive and peaceful way in an increasingly diverse world.