The Seven Pillars of Friendship

Love, friendship, and other close personal relationships have been ill-served in the philosophical literature. Aside from Aristotle’s foundational discussion and the occasional essay by the likes of Montaigne, Bacon, and Emerson, few philosophers have contributed deep insights to human relationships. This is disappointing, because as Aristotle observed 2400 years ago we are social creatures for whom close personal relationships are fundamental to our way of life.

We can be thankful, then, that more recently social scientists have stepped into the breach. Previously I highlighted the research of Michael Argyle and Monika Henderson on the rules of friendship, and this time I’d like to draw attention to the excellent work of Robin Dunbar.

Dunbar, who straddles the line between psychology and anthropology, is best known for “Dunbar’s Number”, which I first blogged about in 2004. In the popular understanding, Dunbar’s Number is 150: the size of the typical human social network. However, there are actually multiple networks of different sizes, which I’ll write about next time.

As a precursor, let’s look at another result of the research Dunbar and his associates have done, regarding the reasons why people form close personal relationships in the first place. Dunbar describes these as the seven pillars of friendship, to wit:

  1. Having the same language or dialect.
  2. Growing up in the same location.
  3. Having the same educational and career experiences.
  4. Having the same hobbies and interests.
  5. Having the same worldview.
  6. Having the same sense of humor.
  7. Having the same musical tastes.

It’s natural that these areas of commonality give you things to talk about and also make you more comfortable with another person. From an evolutionary perspective, many of these would have been features of the people in your tribe: you all spoke the same language, grew up in the same location, learned the same lessons and participated in the same activities (whether “work” or “play”), shared the same myths and beliefs, found similar things amusing, even created the same music together. By contrast, those outside your tribe were foreign, strange, and quite possibly threatening.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and life is more complicated: many societies are multi-lingual and multi-ethnic, people move around a lot, educational and career experiences vary widely depending on your path in life, hobbies and interests have multiplied enormously, one can choose from dozens or hundreds of worldviews, and so on. This fragmentation is great for personal expressiveness, but it might make it more difficult for people nowadays to form lasting friendships, stay connected with family members, and the like. Those pillars aren’t as strong as they used to be, which is a significant challenge for people today because, as mentioned, we’re fundamentally social creatures.

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