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For many of us, making friends as an adult is intimidating, and sometimes embarrassing or a bit baffling. But we all know those people who appear to be naturals: They balance bustling social calendars, glide easily into conversations with strangers, and seem to get invited to everybody’s wedding. Research shows that these super friends, as I like to call them, really exist: Not only are they better at initiating new friendships, but they also view their friendships as closer and more enduring.
Super friends tend to have one quality in common—one that allows them to flourish outside of their relationships too. Studies find that people with this trait have better mental health; they’re more satisfied at work, more open to new ideas, and less prejudicial. Research suggests that they feel less regret; that during typically stressful events, like math tests or public-speaking engagements, they keep calm; and that they are less likely to have physical ailments such as heart attacks, headaches, ulcers, and inflammation.
So what is the distinguishing quality of super friends? It’s secure attachment.
Attachment is the “gut feeling” we project onto ambiguity in our interactions. It’s driven not by a cool assessment of events but by the collapsing of time, the superimposition of the past onto the present. Understanding our attachment style is invaluable, not so we can mentally flog ourselves for biased interpretations but so we can gain more control over our social worlds. When we recognize how we contribute to our own relationship problems, we can try to change course—toward greater security and stronger friendships.
According to attachment theory, there are three major attachment styles: secure, anxious, and avoidant. (A fourth—disorganized attachment—is a mix of anxious and avoidant, but it’s under-researched in adults.) Secure people assume that they are worthy of love, and that others can be trusted to give it to them. People who are anxiously attached assume that others will abandon them—so they cling, or try too hard to accommodate others, or plunge into intimacy too rapidly. Avoidantly attached people are similarly afraid of abandonment; instead of clinging, though, they keep others at a distance. Attachment is a spectrum, and it can change over time; it’s common, for instance, to exhibit more insecure attachment when stressed. But we each have a primary attachment style we demonstrate most often.
We develop our attachment styles based in part on our early relationships with our caregivers. If our caregivers were warm and validating, we become secure. If they were unresponsive or overprotective, then we develop insecure attachment, wherein we believe that others are bound to desert or harm us. To protect against the mistreatment we expect, we act anxiously or avoidantly (or both). But attachment isn’t all our parents’ fault. Although early experiences with caregivers establish expectations about how we’ll be treated, these expectations likely evolve in other relationships. And they shape those relationships in turn.
The psychologist Fred H. Goldner coined the term pronoia to describe the optimistic counterpart to paranoia. People with pronoia possess the delusion that, despite any evidence to the contrary, others want the best for them. But presuming goodwill isn’t always uncalled for. Unless there’s contradictory evidence, secure people tend to assume that others are trustworthy.
It’s tempting to think that secure people are setting themselves up for disappointment. But assuming the best sets people up to receive the best. In one study that demonstrates this, students played either an “investor” or a “trustee.” The investors were given money and told they could keep it with a trustee, who could then choose how much to grant them back. In one scenario, investors were told to threaten a financial penalty if the trustee didn’t return the investment; in another, they didn’t mention a penalty at all. In yet another, the trustee was told that the investor had declined to exact a penalty, regardless of the amount returned. The trustees provided the highest returns to the investors who could have fined them but did not, and the lowest returns to those who threatened a fine. “If you trust people, you make them more trustworthy,” Ernst Fehr, a University of Zurich professor who co-authored the study, told Nature.
And when untrustworthy people weasel through the cracks and cause harm, secure people are less affected than the insecure. Research shows that security is a strong predictor of resilience and stress regulation. One study found that when people were primed with security, their heart-rate variability—changes in the time between heartbeats, which can be triggered by stress—didn’t fluctuate as significantly when they were socially excluded.
Accompanied by this resilience and good faith, secure people are freed up to take risks in relationships. They’re more likely to initiate new friendships, as well as productively address conflict and share intimate things about themselves. People who tend toward anxious attachment, however, have a harder time trusting that those risks won’t end in hurt. In fact, they’re physically more sensitive to snubs: One study found that when rejection was simulated in the laboratory, the more anxiously attached someone was, the more the regions of their brain associated with distress lit up.
If you feel this imperiled and alone, you won’t always behave generously. For my book, Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make—And Keep—Friends, I talked with someone who reminded me of this. (She requested not to be identified, to keep her personal history private.) When she was leaving her job at a tech company to travel internationally, she told me, a colleague sent her a kind farewell email. She responded with brevity, saying that it had been nice to work with him. She was surprised when he then sent her a series of angry texts, saying that her response was cold and impersonal.
Her message had been short because she was in the middle of closing out her old job, archiving files, and delegating tasks to other employees, as well as preparing to move out of the country. The shortness of her response, she explained, had nothing to do with her colleague. Even worse, she’d read his reply on the same day she had felt a lump in her breast, and was worried it could be cancer. “Without knowing it,” she told me, “he spent a bunch of time kicking me while I was very down.”
When we don’t have full information, we have to infer why people are behaving a certain way. The stories we tell ourselves can be linked to our attachment styles—and they may not line up with the truth. Some people might jump to conclusions because they’re prone to what’s called vulnerable narcissism, which is associated with anxious attachment. Vulnerable narcissists reveal the self-centeredness of pain; they prioritize their own needs and dismiss those of others, because they assume (often incorrectly) that they’re the ones being slighted.
Anxiously attached people commonly misfire like this. In one study, anxious subjects were quicker at recognizing jumbled letters as representing words that conveyed rejection, such as abandoned, or ridiculed, even if these jumbled words were preceded by a tone they’d been conditioned to associate with approval. Anxious people are so vigilant for dismissal that they register cues of it while ignoring signals of their acceptance.
People with avoidant attachment, too, end up pushing others away for fear of rejection. Research finds that avoidantly and anxiously attached people are more likely to end friendships. And because romantic breakups can surface powerful emotions as well, avoidants, according to research, tend to prefer to eject using indirect routes, such as ghosting. Studies find that even though avoidants appear cool and collected during times of strife, their nervous systems are frenzied and their blood pressure is spiking—and they’re more likely to have poorer immune functioning, severe headaches, and chronic pain.
Insecure attachment is a way for people to protect themselves from the hazards of connection, but it’s a system gone haywire. When people cling to protect themselves, it ultimately harms them. And when they reject or keep others at a distance to protect themselves, that also harms them. At some point, all the self-protection becomes self-harm. But they can fight against these impulses.
Most of us aren’t just insecure or secure; we’re insecure at times and secure in others. By bending toward security even if total security eludes us, we can grow—and that might mean becoming a better friend.
One study found that when insecure people were primed with security—through writing about someone who was loving and supportive toward them—they then reported being better at taking initiative in friendship. “How bold one gets when one is sure of being loved,” Sigmund Freud once said.
But why? Research into romantic couples suggests that the more positively we feel about ourselves, the more likely we are to assume that others like us. How people thought their romantic partner viewed them, the study found, was less a reflection of their partner’s perspective and more a reflection of how they viewed themselves. In platonic relationships, too, how we think others view us isn’t necessarily fact.
When secure people assume that others like them, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy termed “the acceptance prophecy.” Danu Anthony Stinson, a psychology professor at the University of Victoria in Canada, hypothesized with her colleagues that “if people expect acceptance, they will behave warmly, which in turn will lead other people to accept them; if they expect rejection, they will behave coldly, which will lead to less acceptance.” To test this hypothesis, she told people they would join an ongoing focus group, asked them to report on how much they thought the group members would like them, and then instructed them to record a video to introduce themselves to the group. Observers then rated how likable the participant was in the video.
The participants who assumed they’d be liked were, in fact, seen as more likable. This study built on a similar study conducted in the 1980s, which found that volunteers who were led to believe that an interaction partner liked them shared more about themselves, disagreed less, and had a more positive attitude—ultimately making the premonition come true.
Overall, this research reveals one of the most important secrets to taking initiative in friendship: Assume that people like you. Tempted to ask a gym friend if they want to become a happy-hour friend? Assume they do. Want to reconnect with a friend you’ve fallen out of touch with? Assume they’re in. When we make this assumption, initiative feels less scary. We’re more likely to take some leaps of faith—and eventually navigate the friendship-making process, and life, with more peace, pleasure, and security.