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Study: Are Platonic Heterosexual Relationships Really That Platonic?

A recent study reflects that men view their female friends differently than women view their male friends – but by a pretty insignificant margin. 

Actors Hugh Grant and Stephanie Stumph flirt during the Wetten dass...? show at the AWD Dome in Bremen, Germany. (Photo by Ronny Hartmann/Getty Images)

recent study in the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science reveals that heterosexual men and women may view opposite-sex friends differently from one another. In particular, men in the study were more likely than women to report being attracted to their opposite-sex friends – but not by much.


Researchers’ interest in the subject was grounded in opposite-sex friendships being, by and large, a natural anomaly. Professor April Bleske-Rechek, the leading psychologist behind the study, said in an interview with PsyPost:

In graduate school, my advisor (David Buss) and I began studying friendship with an evolutionary lens, and hence we began to consider the ways in which our evolved mating strategies might impinge on our experiences with opposite-sex friends. 

We did that because, defined as a voluntary, non-reproductive alliance between non-genetically related members of the opposite sex, these relationships — at least among young adults — seem to be a bit of an evolutionary novelty.

From an evolutionary biologist’s point of view, non-sexual relationships between members of the opposite sex might seem downright bizarre.

The study’s methodology consisted in approaching opposite-sex pairs of adults on a college campus, asking them to participate in a study about dyads, and separating them to answer some questions on a clipboard. According to the article, very few pairs declined to participate. Once separated, the participants answered questions about their relationship status and the extent to which each subject was attracted to the other.

The hypothesis that young men look at their female friends differently than young women view their male friends was confirmed by the results. Men reported higher mean and maximum levels of attraction to their female friends than vice-versa. However, the differences were small. Prior studies into similar topics had results showing men having much higher relative rates of attraction. The researchers wrote:

In short, we failed to replicate the significant sex difference documented in previous studies (Bleske-Rechek and Buss 2001; Bleske-Rechek et al. 2012; Kaplan and Keys 1997). The sex difference we observed was small in magnitude, rather than moderate to strong, and not statistically significant. 

Having expected to find a greater difference, the researchers suggest that one explanation for the subtle difference may be that they approached the friends while they were with each other (despite the fact that they physically separated to answer the questions). They describe:

We speculated that our sampling method was an explanatory factor. That is, we had not asked people to tell us about a friend of theirs but instead approached friends in their “natural habitat.” Are the members of the opposite sex with whom young adults pass their time in an everyday context different from the members of the opposite sex that they visualize when researchers ask about their friends?

Other questions remain as well. Are first-person reports about such friendships reliable? To what extent are the results culturally specific? What, if anything, can be learned about romantic relationships? Was there an evolutionary advantage to non-romantic heterosexual, opposite-sex friendships?

Nevertheless, one thing, according to Professor Bleske-Rechek, remains clear: there is a real difference. She describes in her interview:

The current set of studies, taken as an aggregate, supports my general hypothesis that young adult heterosexual men and women, on average, have somewhat different mental definitions (or characterizations) of “opposite-sex friend.” When men and women think of an opposite-sex friend, men are more likely than women to think of a friend to whom they are attracted.

A seemingly simple question about the nature of human friendships reveals great complexity and eludes straightforward answers. 

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