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Neuropsych

The most valued trait in a friend will surprise you

One trait to rule them all.
Credit: Annelisa Leinbach, Manny Becerra / Unsplash
Key Takeaways
  • A good personality and a sense of humor are nice traits to have in a friend. But honesty may be the best.
  • The traits we value most — qualities such as kindness, availability, and pleasantness — “are to a considerable degree objective.”
  • We know the difference between truth and falsehood and seek out others who conform to that standard.

Making friends is a fundamental part of the human experience. As the saying goes, friends are the family we choose. But when given the choice, what kind of friends do we choose?

A new study, published in the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science, examined that very question. The researchers investigated both desirable and undesirable traits, and the team made an intriguing find: Above any other personality trait, study participants valued honesty in their friendships. The paper adds to a large body of evidence indicating that our social values may not be as artificially constructed as we may think.

A friendly study

The researchers conducted three surveys to pin down the traits we look for in our friends. In the first study, 236 people (122 women and 114 men, all Greek-speakers from Greece or Cyprus) wrote down the traits they want and do not want in their friends. In total, they recorded 50 positive traits and 43 negative traits.

In the second study, 706 individuals replied to the statement, “I would like a friend of mine to be ___,” and chose from the 50 positive answers collected during the first survey. They rated the importance of each trait on a five-point scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” Study three followed a similar design: 861 people responded to the statement, “I would like a friend of mine NOT to be ___,” and chose from the 43 negative traits collected during the first survey.

The researchers then classified the desirable traits into “10 broader factors,” the most important being honesty, followed by ethical, pleasant, and available. The undesirable traits were categorized into three broader factors, dishonest being most undesirable, followed by competitive and impatient.

The results showed:

“[P]eople would prefer traits in a friend which indicate a high potential for cooperation and mutual support … Furthermore, cooperation and support would not be possible if a friend is dishonest, unreliable, and exploitive. Accordingly, we found that honesty was the most important trait participants sought in a friend.”

Objective standards of friendship

The study points to several compelling conclusions. Perhaps most importantly, the researchers noted that the traits we value — qualities such as kindness, availability, and pleasantness — “are to a considerable degree objective.” This seems to suggest that the qualities we expect our friends to embody are not arbitrary preferences we invent as we go, but hardwired traits that stem from human nature.

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This seems intuitive, even without the study results in hand. As author and Christian theologian C.S. Lewis once observed, when you feel wronged by another person, you appeal to a standard of behavior they should have followed but didn’t. That wasn’t “fair,” you might say to someone who took your seat on the bus. That person “very seldom replies: ‘To hell with your standard,’” Lewis wrote. They instead try to demonstrate why their behavior was perfectly fair. “It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of Law or Rule of fair play… about which they really agreed,” Lewis concluded. 

The fact that participants in this study wanted their friends to be honest (“free from fraud or deception”) above all else entails that we know the difference between truth and falsehood and seek out others who conform to that standard. Importantly, this result joins a large body of evidence documenting shared moral values across cultures and throughout history. 

The researchers acknowledged that “some of these preferences have been socially acquired,” and recommended that their findings be replicated in other countries with different cultural expectations. For instance, citizens of Western, individualistic societies may value availability more than people living in collectivist societies where this trait is more common.

Evolution or rational thinking?

For an explanation, researchers turned to evolutionary biology to explain why humans would have developed similar standards for friendship. Citing three previous studies published between 1996 and 2010, they argued:

… [S]ecuring assistance from non-genetically related individuals or non-genetic relatives would make a considerable difference to one’s chances of survival, which in turn, would favor the evolution of behavioral mechanisms that would enable people to form relationships of cooperation and mutual help. The evolution of such mechanisms would give rise to the human capacity to make friends.”

Alternatively, surrounding ourselves with trustworthy people might just be the most rational choice — no “evolved preference” for honesty required. We don’t necessarily follow a predetermined script handed down by natural selection, but we reason our way to the conclusion that honest individuals form a better support system than their dishonest counterparts. “In this argument,” the researchers added, “people have a preference for friends who are honest, which constitutes the product of rational thinking.”

To extend this reasoning just a little further, perhaps it is rational to value trusted friendships for their own sake. A little mental calculus tells us that living life alongside quality people is more enjoyable than trying to endure unpleasant, unkind, unavailable miscreants. As journalist Christopher Hitchens once explained, “There have been moments of… conversation, perfumed with ashtrays and cocktails and decent company, which I would not have exchanged for a year of ordinary existence.”

Thank you for being a friend

In sum, this study probably points to a universal truth that we easily recognize and Aristotle described more than 2,000 years ago: good friendships are an essential aspect of a fulfilling life.


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