The Chummy Science of Choosing the Right Friends
Greetings, weirdos! Apparently, you’ve woken up today, looked around and realized you had no friends. Maybe you’ve just changed jobs or cities or something else that took you away from your totally normal social circle. But let’s be real: You’ve clicked on an article about the scientific method of selecting other humans with whom to forge emotional bonds to improve your mental health, so it’s probably not hard to figure out what’s driving people away from you.
Ain’t no shame in that game — you’re probably just picking the wrong friends. We tend to be friends with whatever assholes happen to be around, so you just need to put a little more effort into finding your own little flock. The good news is, your eccentricity should be an advantage in that endeavor. In order to sniff out the people who are gonna share matching rocking chairs with you at the old folks’ home, you’re gonna have to do some eyebrow-raising stuff, including actual sniffing.
A 2022 experiment from the Weizmann Institute of Science, in all their gendered wisdom, determined that people who smell alike are more likely to get along. They compared the chemical signatures of different people’s body odors and found that those who were friends were more likely to have similar stinks than those who had no relationship. It’s not a subliminal thing, either — some truly desperate volunteers could also smell the similarities between buds. In subsequent (undoubtedly awkward) experiments, body odor even predicted with 71 percent accuracy the likelihood of a positive interaction between strangers.
It might just be that everyone loves the smell of their own recipe, but it could also be because we tend to share way more genes with friends than others (up to 1 percent, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but there are so many genes, man). Conversely, we also subconsciously pick up on cues about people’s immune systems from their scents, helping us select friends who are the most dissimilar to us in terms of disease vulnerability. Either way, you’re gonna have to go around smelling people. Just try not to be too obvious about it. That’s the official advice of our lawyers.
Next, follow them into a Bath & Body Works (again, from a plausibly deniable distance), watch which candles they surreptitiously unscrew and stuff their faces into, note their reactions and then go smell those candles yourself and compare. Your genes determine which stuff smells good to you, and those specific genes are the ones that are the most likely to be similar between friends. So if they went for Fresh Cut Lilacs, abort the mission (unless you’re also someone’s stuffy grandma).
If your prospective bestie passes all the smell tests, cross your fingers that they’ve planned a hardcore day of self-care and their next destination is a bar. Another gene that’s strongly correlated with friendship is one that’s linked to drinking behavior. In other words, if they’re knocking back Scotch like Don Draper and you’re more of a “start expressing your love to strangers after one glass of red” kind of drinker or vice versa, move on. To be fair, it might just be that people with these genes tend to hang out in the same places — e.g., Dave & Buster’s and then inevitably the parking lot of Dave & Buster’s. But no one knows anything about how genes work, you need all the help you can get and you certainly don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.
Finally, you’re going to have to actually go over there, introduce yourself to your new ride-or-die and ask if they want to see a funny video. (They will be some level of drunk at this point, so they will say yes.) Just open your YouTube app and let that bitch autoplay the day away. If their attention perks up or drifts at the same parts that yours does, your test is complete. In 2018, researchers found that people who are friends display remarkably similar patterns of neural activity, especially in the parts of the brain responsible for reward processing and attention allocation, while watching a random selection of video clips. Essentially, their brains are structured to notice and process the same information in the same way, leading to “the sort of seamless social interaction that can feel so rewarding.” We’re no neuroscientists, but we’re pretty sure this is how inside jokes happen.
Before you journey into the forest of friendship, however, be aware that what draws us platonically to each other doesn’t always lead to the best companionship, and there be wolves in these here woods — and they be sexy as hell. We tend to be drawn to attractive people regardless of our naked intentions because beauty is a function of familiarity (that is, what we’re used to is what we find hot), but much like modern methods of making ourselves pretty, it’s all an illusion. If attractive people were always great friend choices, they’d have tons of friends, and that isn’t always true. It’s much better to choose a friend who’s about as hot as you are, if only so you can get into the same clubs.
Likewise, you might think it’s best to choose someone who’s basically you in a different body to work that genetic similarity angle, but genes don’t always produce the sort of qualities recognizable by someone who can’t smell you. In fact, friends who have significant differences in personality, background and other social markers tend to be closer than friends who are carbon copies. Buffy and Willow worked together so well for a reason.
Okay, so you’ve made a friend, and now you want to make them your friend. Time to put in some time — a lot of time. A 2018 study from the University of Kansas showed that it takes 40 to 60 hours to form a casual friendship, 80 to 100 hours for an “invited to the wedding” kind of friendship and at least 200 hours to convince them to get matching tattoos. This is face time, too, not just FaceTime. Physical proximity is an absolutely crucial ingredient, so texting doesn’t count. Another is “intensity,” created and displayed by actions like “mutual gaze, touching, whispering, frequent head nodding, mirroring body posture, frequent smiles, expressive gestures, inward leaning and intimate self-disclosures during conversations.” Just keep those middle-school confessions close to the chest until around the 100-hour mark.
If this all sounds like a lot of work, well, no one said making friends as an adult weirdo was going to be easy. But take heart: You don’t need a lot of them. Humans only have the capacity to maintain five close friendships, so you only have to repeat this process as many times as it takes to not scare off a little less than half a dozen people with your sniffing, stalking and YouTube history.
Best of luck out there, you freak.