Here’s a quick quiz: If you were asked to think of a friend of the opposite sex, would you picture a bud that you actually hang out with regularly, or the hottest person you’re friendly with? If you’re a dude, according to a new study, you’re more likely to go with the latter.
Published in Evolutionary Psychological Science and lead-authored by April Bleske-Rechek at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, the study found that guys are more likely to define a female friend as “a member of the opposite sex to whom I am attracted and would pursue given the opportunity” and ladies to define their opposite-sex friends as simply “a friend of the opposite sex.”
Bleske-Rechek, who says that the opposite-sex just-friendships are “a bit of an evolutionary novelty” for young adults, wanted to replicate a finding from earlier studies on the relationship type. In multiple studies, men report having greater attraction to their opposite-sex friends than women do. When undergraduates were asked about a close, cross-sex friend, the guys scored significantly higher on scales measuring how much they thought their friend was physically attractive, that they’d like to have sex with them, and how much they touched them. Another study of undergrads found that when asked to think about their “closest, most important opposite-sex friend who is not a long-term romantic partner,” guys reported higher physical attraction and sexual desire than women.
For the current study, researchers went to a student union at a large midwestern university and looked for pairs of cross-sex friends, ending up with a sample of 40 pairs. The researchers approached them, asked if they’d like to participate in a study, and had the students separately answer a few questions. The average level of physical attraction for both genders was low to moderate, they found, not replicating the stronger findings of the earlier studies.
This, as the paper notes, led to a moment of reflection: “We had not asked people to tell us about a friend of theirs but instead approached friends in their ‘natural habitat,’” Bleske-Rechek and her co-authors write. “Are the members of the opposite sex with whom young adults pass their time in an everyday context different from the members of the opposite sex that they visualize when researchers ask about their friends?” Before testing that new hypothesis, they did another round of questions with other students in the wild, this time with 32 friend pairs — and again, non-replicatory results.
For a third experiment, 114 men and 192 women were recruited through research pools and online social networks. In a computer program, they were asked to fill in the name of an opposite-sex friend (so that the researchers new it was a specific person they were thinking of). Then, participants were asked, “Which of the following describes the person who has come to mind?” and given the chance to check one or both of the following answers: “A person of the opposite sex who is a friend” and “A person of the opposite sex who I am physically attracted to.” And, ta-da, there’s that finding again: Men were less likely to say that person was a friend, and more likely to say that person was someone they were attracted to, or a friend that they were also attracted to.
There’re obviously lots of questions that stem from these results, like if it will hold outside of the idyllic setting of the midwestern college campus. Since so much of sexuality and gender roles are culturally conditioned, would that be the same case in more potentially more liberated enclaves on the coasts? What about in super-conservative cultures? Also, the researchers were asking about sexual attraction; would the results be different with romantic attraction? And what’s the deal with the disconnect between the attraction that guys’ minds go to when asked to ponder a female friend, and the lack of sexual tension in real-life pairs? “At the least,” Bleske-Rechek told PsyPost, “I think we can conclude that the opposite-sex ‘friend’ who comes to a given person’s mind when someone asks them about friends might not be the same ‘opposite-sex friend’ they hang out with at any given time of the day.” It appears that to at least a segment of the population, when you hear the word friend, what you really think of is would-be sexual partner.