The Friendship Formula: The Psychology of Connection

Our relationships with others—our friends, family, and significant others—give our life its greatest moments and sense of purpose.

However, as an adult, do you actually know how to make new friends?

As we grow into adulthood, and periodically throughout our life, we go through periods of “friendship pruning.” We begin to recognize that some of these friendships, whether due to growing differences or circumstances, are causing added stress to our lives.  When this happens, we decide it’s best to let these relationships extinguish themselves.

Curating your relationships is an important part of life, but do you know how to replenish these lost connections? As a child you are thrust into a set of circumstances that breed the growth of friendship: school, team activities, and ample amounts of free time in which to create shared experiences with your peers. These circumstances disappear in adulthood, and it’s then that we realize we never learned how to make friends. Our existing friendships have simply blossomed effortlessly as a result of growing up.

The purpose of this article is to help you uncover the psychological foundations for connecting with others and making new friends. This process involves so much more than small talk and having the courage to go out and meet others. Fortunately, the art of human connection can be broken down into a relatively simple formula. There are three core components of creating a meaningful connection with anyone: familiarity, likability, and vulnerability. Each component fulfills a certain duty, creating a feedback loop that allows the relationship to reinforce and strengthen over time.



In 1950, researchers studied the community life of a group of veterans living in the same housing complex [1]. The results they found were surprising. One of the best predictors of closeness between individuals was their physical proximity to one another. This same effect was repeated in another study completed in 1967 measuring the social interactions and relationships among college freshman sharing the same dorm. Physical proximity was again a strong predictor of the strength of closeness between students—roommates were most likely to become friends, followed by neighbors immediately next door, then neighbors down the hall, then lastly by neighbors on a separate floor [2].

Proximity Principle

The proximity principle is the idea that mere physical closeness increases interpersonal attraction. In other words, repeated physical exposure to the same people increases the likelihood that you will become friends. This is due in part to the mere exposure effect and the attribution of perceived similarities (more on this in a bit).

Mere Exposure Effect

Another psychological phenomenon that supports the benefit of physical proximity is the mere exposure effect. This states that we tend to prefer things that are more familiar to us. Think of your favorite comfort foods. Likely you consumed these foods often as a child, and it is this familiarity that creates your sense of comfort upon reexperiencing them. Additionally, studies have shown that we even prefer words that we hear more often [3]. If the proximity principle sets you up for increased familiarity, the mere exposure effect comes in for the alley-oop to allow this familiarity to breed into increased positive emotions toward you. Combined, they set the stage for a new friendship to blossom.

The first step in creating new connections with other people is to ensure you are being repeatedly exposed to them. Attending parties they might also be attending, participating in similar activities, and being generally as visible as possible leads to this familiarity. This could also include online visibility—via social media posts and interactions.


The second component of creating new relationships is establishing likability. People won’t want to be friends with you, let alone be around you, unless they like you. Being liked is so important, in fact, that Dr. Robert Cialdini identified it as one of the six principles of persuasion in his book, Influence.

There are two core concepts important to understanding how to create likability: similarity and reciprocity (another of those persuasion principles).

Perceived and Actual Similarities

The power of the proximity principle lies in our assumptions about others. When we come into frequent contact with the same people, we often assume we have more things in common than that which is immediately evident. These perceived similarities lead to a greater sense of liking.

This occurs for a few reasons. First, we craft our own self-identity at least in part by those we choose to associate with. This is called social identity theory. If we maintain a particular view about who we are as a person, we are more likely to self-select individuals who support that view—people who hold similar interests, personality traits, and world views [5]. We like those similar to us because they prove that we are who we think we are.

The second factor that leads to our favorability toward similar others is that it makes the relationship easier to maintain. When we become friends with individuals who carry wildly different views, or behave in very different ways, it exposes us to a greater likelihood of potential conflict with these individuals. For example, say you had very health-conscious views that included eating healthy foods and exercising regularly, but you had a friend who never exercised and ate whatever they wanted—giving no value to their health. This would increase the likelihood of conflicts arising in the future due to these differences. How do you decide where to go out to eat together? They may always want pizza, but you would prefer something a bit healthier. Or perhaps you want to do an activity a bit more physical and not related to food at all, yet they prefer not to do anything requiring physical activity. Either way, befriending those different than us exposes us to these potential disagreements.

Therefore, if you want to give yourself an edge in establishing bonds with new people, work to identify any similarities that might exist. This could include values, hobbies, food preferences, even favorite book genres; the possibilities are endless. I should also note that, even if there aren’t any immediately identifiable similarities between you and another person, you can almost always find some sort of shared interest if you dig deep enough. Let your natural curiosity take over and explore the interests of others.

Reciprocal Liking

We have an inherent need to both act fairly and be treated fairly. As a result, whenever someone does something for us, be it a favor or the receipt of a gift, we have a tendency to want to repay the giver in kind. Usually this is completed through a favor completed at a later time or a gift given in exchange. This effect also extends to our relationships with others. When it becomes clear that others like us, we feel compelled to reciprocate by liking them in return [4], a concept referred to as reciprocal liking. Therefore, if you want to create new relationships with others, start by showing your liking toward them. In exchange, they will likely take a more favorable view toward you and be more open to establishing a relationship.

This means even if you seemingly have nothing in common during your first interactions ( you can’t readily find any similarities), let your curiosity takeover. The best way to be interesting is to be interested. Inquire into their interests and other areas of pride. Ask meaningful questions that allow you to learn more about the individual whom you’d like to create a connection with. Surely, if you are truly curious, you will eventually find something you have in common. You might even create a new shared common interest that didn’t exist before.

Exposing yourself frequently to those you’d like to befriend increases your familiarity to them, which, in turn, improves your likability and their potential desire to want to connect with you. Both of these factors are relatively superficial, however, and while important for initially establishing a relationship, do very little to cultivate deep bonds. We move the discussion next to creating and sharing vulnerability in order to develop closeness.


Vulnerability is defined as a state of being that exposes us to the possibility of being hurt or harmed, either physically or emotionally. Being vulnerable in a relationship involves sharing our biggest dreams, our deepest fears, and our worst pain. This act of complete openness is often avoided by so many simply because of this exposure. By giving this information to another person, we give them the power to do us harm. Yet, while it may seem so hard to be vulnerable with another person—especially someone we don’t know very well—research has shown that this vulnerability is actually the key to creating deep, meaningful relationships with others [6].

The Power of Shared Experiences

Why does vulnerability do such an excellent job of bringing people together into meaningful relationships? At least part of the effect can be explained by concepts presented by Sebastian Junger in his book, Tribe. (Ideas that are supported by prevailing research.) The connectedness created through vulnerability is established because we bond best through shared experiences with others, both positive and negative [7,8]. The ability to identify these shared experiences—through the openness created from being vulnerable—is what allows the connectedness of the relationship to solidify.

Empathetic Balance

While vulnerability appears to be the most important factor in creating closeness with others, proper judgement should be used when deciding when it is appropriate to share these experiences and feelings. Creating shared experiences allows us to empathize with others—the ability to feel the emotions they feel. This means we can feel the positive emotions expressed by others, but it also means we will experience the negative emotions too. If you are overly sharing your negative experiences and feelings with others, it can have the opposite intended effect by causing others to avoid future social interactions with you. If you are constantly “dampening the mood,” others will seek to avoid your company.

It is important then to not only use vulnerability as a tool to deepen relationships in a strategic manner, but also balance negative openness with positive openness—sharing your dreams, aspirations, and goals in addition to your fears and bad experiences.

Strategic Vulnerability

How can one use vulnerability strategically? I encourage you to share negative vulnerability when it becomes relevant to the conversation. For example, perhaps you are talking to a newer acquaintance about celebrity gossip regarding the recent divorce or breakup of Hollywood’s latest power couple. You can take this opportunity to share your perspective on the situation, given your own bad experience with a breakup. Not only are you sharing a moment of vulnerability, your new companion will likely feel the need to reciprocate with their own story of heartbreak, creating a shared experience between the two of you.

When considering when to create these shared experiences using vulnerability, remember the two most important factors: relevancy and empathetic balance. You should share moments of vulnerability as they become relevant to the conversation, seeking to balance positive and negative experiences. Also remember that it takes a certain level of bravery to open yourself up to someone else. You may find you open up without an immediate return of vulnerability from the other person. This is normal and may just mean they need more time to feel comfortable. Fortunately, this doesn’t necessarily mean your openness was in vain. Once you’ve experienced your first level of vulnerability, you have introduced a newer, stronger level of familiarity—which will breed greater likability and future moments of vulnerability.

Bringing It All Together

You now have the tools required to make a genuine connection to any human on the planet. Yet, there is one imperative piece of the puzzle missing that you must supply: a genuine interest in wanting to connect with others. Most people are very aware when someone is being fake, and faking any of these steps can lead to disaster. You must be genuinely curious about others and want to make a connection with them in a real, authentic way.

Also consider that once a connection is established it requires work to maintain. You must continually traverse this loop so long as you want to prevent the relationship from going stale. Think of close childhood friends whom you no longer visit frequently. You’ve likely been very familiar, liked, and vulnerable with them during periods of your life. Now that you’ve grown apart, the relationship is not as close as it once was. This can happen to any relationship, even those with the closest of friends and loved ones, without the proper care and attention it deserves.

With his knowledge you are better prepared to build new friendships to help curate your environment. Building the right relationships will lead to greater success (whatever that means to you), and increase your overall enjoyment of life.

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