Character  &  Context

Making Friends While Pursuing Goals

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Student Poster Award Winners Jessica Gamburg, Rima Touré-Tillery, & Y. Jin Youn were invited to write a post for the blog. 

By Jessica Gamburg

After making a new acquaintance, how do we choose whether to pursue a friendship with that person? And what role do our own important goals—e.g., weight loss, physical fitness, abstinence from alcohol—play in behaviors surrounding the formation of new friendships?

Imagine that your New Year’s Resolution is to get into better shape. At a dinner party you are introduced to, and strike up conversation with, two equally amiable individuals. Later, you notice one of those individuals ordering the healthiest entrée on the menu and the other individual ordering an indulgent main course. Which individual’s friendship do you pursue? How do you determine, for example, whether you would reject (or accept) a Facebook friend request from either of them? And what would compel you to acknowledge either individual (or look away pretending not to notice) when you see them around town shortly afterward?

Several researchers have hinted at the answers to such questions.  On the one hand, Helmreich, Aronson, and LeFan (1970) suggest that when we encounter individuals with seemingly high self-control we perceive them as too perfect, robotic even. This might indicate that we consider others with high self-control—like, for instance, someone who orders a salad for dinner—as less approachable for establishing friendship. In addition, other theories of social comparison have been elaborated, suggesting that when individuals compare themselves to other people succeeding at the goals that they set for themselves (an upward social comparison), individuals may feel bad about themselves, suggesting they will avoid such self-controlled individuals for friendship (Tesser 1988).

By contrast, Righetti and Finkenauer (2011) found that individuals consider people with low self-control as less trustworthy. This suggests that a person who is eating a decadent meal might not make the ideal new friend.

Finally, evidence presented by Fitzsimons and Shah (2009) found that we are drawn to close others (friends and family) who assist us (i.e., are “instrumental”) in attaining our own goals.  But what about newly minted acquaintances? At the same time, their evidence demonstrates that approach tendencies (how quickly that close other was brought to mind, for example) arose irrespective of whether the close other succeeded or failed at whatever personal goal the observer held. Thus, this leaves open the question of whether a new acquaintance, who either exercises self-control or indulges, is actually perceived as capable of providing such goal-directed “instrumentality,” OR whether a different psychological process might explain approach tendencies towards such strangers.

In our poster, presented at the 2017 SPSP Conference in San Antonio, TX, we explored observers’ social responses (such as their desire for friendship formation) towards targets engaging in behaviors related to goals held by observers. We argue that an observer’s beliefs about the kinds of influence a target can have on an observer’s goals—both positive and negative—determine whether the observer subsequently chooses to approach the target for friendship. For example, whether you think that someone might exert a positive, versus negative, influence on your own goals may determine whether or not you pursue friendship with that person. This psychological process is known as influence beliefs.

In five studies, which span four self-control domains—eating, drinking alcohol, spending money, and using offensive language—we investigated our hypothesis about influence beliefs. We determined that when goal domains are highly important to an observer, any target who is “indulging” in that domain is believed to have a potentially negative influence on observers’ own goals. Therefore, that target is avoided. In contrast, in goal domains that are less important to observers, the observers hold equivalent influence beliefs about an indulging and a self-controlled target. This results in equivalent intentions to approach them for friendship.

The interplay between one’s personal goals and one’s desire for the friendship of others is even more complicated. Analyses of both small and large social networks, like those conducted by Christakis and Fowler (2007) and Crandall (1988) demonstrate that bad behaviors (obesity and binge eating, respectively) are passed from friend to friend (and even on to friends-of-friends). Thus, we were curious to understand where the process of influence beliefs breaks down. That is, if everyone were skilled at recognizing the potentially detrimental effects of friendship with indulgers, then these network effects should not emerge. Importantly, understanding why individuals fail to avoid those who can negatively influence their own goals becomes particularly important in forming interventions designed to stop the spread of bad behaviors through networks.

We explored two potential moderators. First, we theorized that “goal expectancy,” which is defined as the confidence that an individual has that he can attain his goals, plays a critical role in determining friendship formation. For example, an individual who is highly confident that he will attain his health goals should be less concerned about outside influences hindering his attainment of peak healthfulness. We found that, as observers’ goal expectancy increases—in other words, as observers become more confident in achieving their goals—they no longer demonstrate reduced intentions to form friendships with an indulging target.  

Secondly, considering the role that important goals play in determining friendship formation, we theorized that higher-order needs might also play a critical role in determining friendship formation. Specifically, the need for affiliation, when active, may supersede other important goals and thereby drive friendship formation irrespective of influence beliefs. For example, an individual who is extremely lonely may be more concerned about making new friends than achieving an important health goal. We found that as observers’ loneliness increased they no longer demonstrate reduced intentions to form friendships with an indulging target.

In sum, we provide new insights concerning how important goals shape friendship formation. In particular, we demonstrate a theoretically distinct process—influence beliefs—which shapes our interactions with newly minted acquaintances engaging in goal-directed behaviors. In sum, our studies demonstrate, across a wide variety of domains, how social behaviors are used in the service of protecting our most valued goals.



Jessica Gamburg is a PhD candidate in the Marketing Department at Kellogg School of Management. In her research, she studies social influence, particularly within the context of goal pursuit and motivation. Jessica received her MBA from HEC Paris and BA in Economics from University of Pennsylvania.

Rima Touré-Tillery is an assistant professor at Northwestern University. Her research is at the intersection of motivation and self-perception, with implications for consumer behavior, marketing and public policy. Her work has been published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the Journal of Marketing, and the Journal of Consumer Psychology. 

Y. Jin Youn is a Ph.D. student in consumer behavior at Seoul National University. Her research interests include self-control, envy, social exclusion, rivalry, and gift giving. She is passionate about all types of social interactions and how it influences consumers’ decisions and behaviors. 

References:

Christakis, Nicholas A. and James H. Fowler (2007), “The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years,” The New England Journal of Medicine, 357(4), 370–79.

Crandall, Christian S. (1988), “Social Contagion of Binge Eating.,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55(4), 588–98.

Fitzsimons, Gráinne M. and James Y. Shah (2009), “Confusing One Instrumental Other for Another,” Psychological Science, 20(12), 1468–73.

Helmreich, Robert, Elliot Aronson, and James LeFan (1970), “To Err Is Humanizing - Sometimes: Effects of Self-Esteem, Competence, and a Pratfall on Interpersonal Attraction,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 16(2), 259–64.

Righetti, Francesca and Catrin Finkenauer (2011), “If You Are Able to Control Yourself, I Will Trust You: The Role of Perceived Self-Control in Interpersonal Trust,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(5), 874–86.

Tesser, Abraham (1988), “Toward a Self-Evaluation Maintenance Model of Social Behavior,” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 21(1), 181–227.

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