Why Are You Jealous of Your Friend's Friend? BFFs, Ruthlessness and Vulnerability

Monday, May 19, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Evolutionary Psychology

Friendships were critical in our evolutionary history due to the fact that we usually raised our children together, sharing all responsibilities among close members of a group. Women even evolved a special "tend and befriend" panic response to ensure we stuck together when things got stressful. I assume this meant that fewer early women wanted to run off and join the circus on the regular. 

Built in assistance? Yes, please. 

Our emotional closeness to each other was the biggest facilitator of this arrangement by allowing us to create long-term friendships with other women. Today we don't rely on each other as much, but this certainly doesn't mean that our brains have forgotten all about those early days of critical connection.

"You Scratch My Back...." The Evolution of Friendship

Friendship was so critical for survival that we are now genetically predisposed to it. In her book Mothers and Others, anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy notes that women strive to find close female supports from an early age, presumably to assist us in later infant care1. The emotional and closely-knit relationships forged among teenage girls just prior to reproduction may be evidence of this drive. We are all acutely aware of the emotional turmoil present in this age group, but we may not realize how adaptive it is. 

As Blaffer Hrdy explains:
"Even the obsession with being popular and belonging so poignantly evident among teenage girls, rendering them both  acutely sensitive to what others think and also causing them to be competitive and ruthlessly mean in excluding others, may possibly have much to do with forging bonds which in ancestral environments would have been critical for successful childrearing."1 (pp271)

If you have a teenage daughter, this explains why, "Julie is a bitch and I hate her!" when Julie heads off to the movies with someone else. 

Jealousy. It's way cooler than Justin Bieber, and more critical for the evolution of the human race.

(Unless egg throwing ends up being some type of new mechanism for vital self protection. I doubt it though.)

In the teenage years, these drives may be more poignant, as girls try to secure vital support for later. But even in adulthood, it follows that our own callous exclusionary tactics derive from this mechanism in addition to our deep need to belong. Our tendency towards cooperative childcare influences our derogatory tactics against outside females once we claim a friend as our own. After all, if your BFF is helping her, she won't be as available to you, hence that little twinge of anxiety or hurt when your friend already has plans with another.

"You gave her a friendship bracelet woven out of rubber bands?!?! How could you!?"

Translation: "Who's going to watch my kids on date night?"

Now this certainly doesn't mean that you will have only one friend for whom this mechanism is triggered. Humans are highly flexible in our breeding patterns, and as such, these bonds may be forged with one individual or a group. However, most of our lifestyles allow for smaller groups of close friends as opposed to a large group of equally bonded individuals. And while most no longer nurse one another's children, as was done in early environments,  the fewer available breasts, the more likely we may be to feel the tug of, "No! She's mine!"

The Argument For Vulnerability in Friendship

Regardless of the breast situation, with strong bonds comes emotional closeness and mutual sharing. These are a necessary part of friendship because they encourage vulnerability.

"Say what!?! I thought the surviving fittest were strong!"

Female traits like vulnerability, sympathy and empathy have long been treated as pathologies in psychiatric literature. But evolutionary psychologists say that these traits were critical for long-term survival.  In groups that shared childcare, closeness was fostered through emotional attachment, which included mutual sharing and vulnerability2. This vulnerability in relationships ensured higher levels of attachment, because all parties involved had costs should the relationship dissolve 2.

Today's translation:

"I better be nice to her, or she'll tell other people about my obsession with Justin Bieber."
(Girl, you know who you are.)

This cooperative way of life is in stark contrast to our current practices of raising children with virtually no outside involvement. However, our deep regret and pain when friendships dissolve is a hurtful reminder of these earlier times when closeness mattered for fitness reasons and not just for emotional support.

"I'm not emotional! I'm a testament to evolutionary fitness!"

It is a disarming situation when traits that are seen as weaknesses throughout society are now, and have always been, vital parts of our psyches. 

Fuck "The Man." Where my girls at?


Related Posts:

  1.  http://www.amazon.com/Mothers-Others-Evolutionary-Origins-Understanding/dp/0674060326
  2. http://www.epjournal.net/articles/friends-with-benefits-the-evolved-psychology-of-same-and-opposite-sex-friendship/

Topic-Relevant Resources

Mothers and Others
Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy explores the history of maternal drives and assistant caregivers

The Woman That Never Evolved: With a New Preface and Bibliographical Updates, Revised Edition
Anthropology, wit and the evolution of the modern female.