The Benefits of Friendship

R.I.M. Dunbar, ‘The Anatomy of Friendship’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22 (2018), 32-51.

Just a brief note on this essay, after a couple of relatively long ones on Predictive Processing and the Free Energy Principle, here (describing a conference), and here (pondering some niche literary implications). Dunbar’s essay is (I think) a superb round-up of psychological studies of friendship. It describes the benefits of friendship to happiness and health; it presents the evidence for the limits to friendship (i.e. how many we can manage at any one time); it discusses the cognitive demands of relationships and how they are met; it talks about the differences between genders as they maintain friendships. One timely twist is an assessment of how the internet is changing friendship: the answer is, not significantly, yet — online networks resemble offline ones more than you might think.


In the literature I tend to study, there are unlikely to be friendship characteristics of the kind being described here, for two reasons. One is that I don’t think the structure of social networks that (perhaps) dates back to the 19th century is quite the same as the one that prevailed in early modern England, the period I study. The other (more concretely) is that the genres I study (drama, poetry, for the most part) are not built to test the possible number, or range, of friendships. It would be in the 19th century novel, I think, that the details of Dunbar’s account could be explored with an interesting historical twist. That’s not on my agenda, but the article is absorbing anyway.

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2 thoughts on “The Benefits of Friendship

  1. Ellen Spolsky

    A wonderful topic – friendship. But the studies Dunbar summarizes let him down, and he should have noticed it. Can you imagine that none of them take gender into consideration at all? Is there anyone who doesn’t recognize the difference between friendships between men, friendships between women, and cross-gender friendships? Cross-generational friendships? If any attention had been paid to this, there would be a major discussion of the varying investments in friendship and this would connect more closely to all literature including the older stuff.

  2. Raphael Post author

    Thanks, Ellen — I think there are probably some studies cited in the essay that flatten out differences between one kind of friendship and another. Dunbar does spend time on the differences between men’s and women’s friendships, though. That wasn’t the bit that caught my eye, but now you mention it, yes you’re right that there could be very interesting traces of these differences in older literature. For example, Shakespeare depicts a number of something like that Dunbar calls ‘BFF’ friendships.


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