Friendship science: Franco offers ways to meaningfully connect

University of Maryland Honors College Assistant Clinical Professor Marisa G. Franco — also the author of Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make — and Keep — Friends, discusses the science behind friendship during her lecture Wednesday morning in the Amphitheater. Franco offered four common friendship “myths,” and ways to dispell them. HG Biggs/Staff Photographer

Alton Northup
Staff writer

Most people might not be eager to share a bed with their friend. But when Marisa G. Franco arrived at Chautauqua this week and experienced a mix-up with her hotel reservation, that’s exactly what she considered doing. 

“I think the ways we see friendship now, as trivial but also so constrained in the types of behaviors we see as appropriate to do with friends, has not been (the case) throughout our history,” said Franco, a research psychologist and the author of the New York Times bestseller Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make – and Keep – Friends.

Based on the lessons she learned from writing her book, and through her career as an assistant clinical professor at the University of Maryland Honors College, Franco presented her lecture, “How to Make and Keep Friends,” at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday in the Amphitheater for the third day of the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week One theme, “On Friendship.”

Franco may be considered a friendship expert now, but she was not always. Admittedly a shy student in her early days of college – wanting to fit in but also to impress others – she found meaningful connections hard to come by. 

After a romantic breakup left her without a primary source of connection, she started a wellness group of fellow college students in hopes it might speed up getting out of the slump she found herself in. Each day, the group did a healing activity together, such as yoga or meditation. It worked, but Franco found the activities, as relaxing as they were, were not the primary motivator behind her happiness; it was the friends she had made. 

This realization sent her on a journey of studying connection and the science behind it. On that journey, she discovered too many people lack a meaningful connection with friends – close friendships have declined drastically over the past decade, according to data from the Survey Center on American Life – and she has since dubbed this “the friendship famine.”

“I felt like my experience reflected something larger about our culture,” Franco said. “In this society, where so many of us are lonely, how can we afford to throw any form of connection away?”

Her case: We cannot. 

Studying the effects of friendship, or the lack thereof, from a medical perspective, she found the statistics alarming. Not having a strong social network outside of the family negatively affects health and mortality. 

One study she presented showed people with fewer social ties were 4.2 times more likely to contract the common cold virus than those with six or more. In contrast, those who smoked were just three times more likely to contract the virus than those who did not.

Another study, a meta-analysis on social connection, found that while exercise decreases the risk of death by 23% to 30%, having a large social network decreases it by 45%. 

“Loneliness, in our bodies, is a sign that we are in danger,” Franco said.

We are all prone to the three types of loneliness – intimate, relational and collective – yet satisfying these areas is crucial to being happy and healthy.

“When you’re around one person all the time, you’re only having one experience of yourself because different people bring out different sides of ourselves,” she said.

Relying solely on a spouse for emotional needs can be damaging to that relationship, Franco argued. Yet, people are often hesitant to create deeper relationships with friends. She advises against this hesitation, insisting friendships are some of the most meaningful relationships because they “transcend the physical.”

But how can people find friendships in a world that seems hostile to the concept? First, they need to get past the four common myths of connection.

Our initial experience of making friends is in childhood, a time when proximity and repeated unplanned activities and settings that encourage people to confide in one another are common – think of recess back in grade school. However, Franco said, this feeds into the first myth of connection: Friendships should happen organically.

Franco said people who think friendships are organic are more likely to feel lonely than people who do not. This is because many adults, unlike children, do not live in an environment nourishing enough for organic relationships; friendships in adulthood take work. 

“This idea of friendship happening organically can really sabotage us from making friends because we end up being passive,” she said.

But actively trying to make friends brings about another worry: Won’t they reject me?

Franco’s calls this fear “the liking gap,” and her theory behind it is that people underestimate how likable they are.

Underestimating your likability can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, then those who fear rejection can appear cold to the very people they are trying to reel in. The best way around this, Franco said, is to assume you will be accepted, because you most likely will.

According to meta-analytic data she reviewed, people who intimately self-disclosed were more liked than those who did not. Still, people expect the worst from vulnerability, rather than seeing it as a crucial step to building relationships. This is Franco’s second myth of connection: Sharing things about yourself burdens people. 

“We are not really meant to work through our own emotions by ourselves; we are meant to support each other,” she said.

Vulnerability in practice is asking deeper questions and sharing the secrets weighing you down. The person on the receiving end, Franco said, will register the trust you show by confiding in them. However, this does not mean people should go around telling everyone their secrets. It takes time to gauge if a person can be trusted to react with love and respect.

As a college freshman attending club meetings and social events, the third rule of making friends was constantly in the back of Franco’s mind: Either you click, or you don’t. 

Likeability, she argued, is rooted in the exposure effect. One study she presented showed women who attended class more often were liked by their classmates 20% more than women who showed up occasionally. Exposure to people increases our likeability. 

When attempting to increase that exposure, expect to feel uncomfortable at first, but work toward making friends from repeated events and with people you see regularly.

A first-time meeting with a potential friend can also bring about anxiety over how you present yourself. This is Franco’s fourth and final myth of connection: “To make friends, I need to be cool, smart or funny.”

“What we find is that people don’t want to be friends with someone who’s necessarily the funniest or the smartest; they want to be friends with someone who makes them feel loved and valued,” she said.

What people value in friendships, Franco argued, are affirmations and affection. People like those who they think like them, someone who believes in them and who makes them feel like they matter. 

Franco’s hope is that with her advice on initiative, disclosure, exposure and affirmation, people will not just practice a radical new form of friendship, but will “become igniters for friendship.”


The author webchq