Social Ignorance and Surrogacy

A vibrant social life and close friendships are an important part of staying healthy, many recent studies have shown, but what is strange about this is why this is the case, considering that we’re surpisingly bad at judging the beliefs, opinions and values of our friends and partners.

A growing body of experimental evidence suggests that, on the whole, we know significantly less about our friends, colleagues, and even spouses than we think we do. […] We’re often completely wrong about their likes and dislikes, their political beliefs, their tastes, their cherished values. We lowball the ethics of our co-workers; we overestimate how happy our husbands or wives are.

[…] While people do have some idea of the political beliefs of their friends, especially their close friends, they also made significant errors. The most common one is assuming their friends agreed with them on issues where they didn’t. Psychologists call this projection: in situations where there’s any ambiguity, people tend to simply project their feelings and thoughts onto others. The Friend Sense study found that this tendency was a stubborn one: its users incorrectly assumed their friends agreed with them even if they had regularly discussed political topics with them.

The article goes on to say that those of us who are most connected—the social mavens—are the least accurate judges of our friends’ characters, but that this “selective blindness” may be at the core of why friendships are so nourishing.

Simply believing we have lots of close friends brings the same benefits as actually having them. In other words, if someone’s ignorance of one of his “friends” extends so deeply that he’s not actually aware that the person doesn’t like him, he may be better off for it. Even befriending entirely fictional people seems to do some good – a paper published last year by researchers at the University of Buffalo and Miami University found that television characters actually function as “social surrogates” for viewers, and watching a favorite show can be an effective way to alleviate loneliness.

And this social surrogacy with fictional characters goes deeper than you might think (via The Frontal Cortex):

Loneliness motivates individuals to seek out relationships, even if those relationships are not real. In a series of experiments, […] participants were more likely to report watching a favorite TV show when they were feeling lonely and reported being less likely to feel lonely while watching. This preliminary evidence suggests that people spontaneously seek out social surrogates when real interactions are unavailable.

[…] Even though parasocial relationships may offer a quick and easy fix for unmet belonging needs, individuals within these relationships may not be spared the pain and anguish of relationship dissolution. [Examining] the responses of television viewers to the potential loss of their favorite television characters, [it was] found that viewers anticipated experiencing the same negative reactions to parasocial breakups as they experience when their real social relationships dissolve.

The conclusion, it seems, is that what makes us happy and what makes friendships an important part of all-round health is not a deep knowledge of our friends’ characters, but the illusion of that knowledge… and possibly positive illusions:

Even in a close and strong relationship like a marriage, a certain amount of blindness may help. While the idea remains controversial, some researchers argue for the value of so-called positive illusions, the rosy image that some people hold, despite the available evidence, about their romantic partners. The psychologist Sandra Murray at the University of Buffalo has found that couples that maintained positive illusions about each other tended to be happier than those that didn’t.

Note: Mind Hacks provides one small caveat about the article: it’s the false consensus effect, not psychological projection.

via Link Banana



2 responses to “Social Ignorance and Surrogacy”

  1. Well I’ll be damned! if this isn’t the point of chapter six of How Proust Can Change Your Life, the chapter I brushed off as far fetched.

  2. Thanks, Jonathan.

    And that’s How Proust Can Change Your Life climbing further up my to-read list.