One of the great human questions, usually explored on the big screen, made its way to the lab as scientists tried to determine whether or not men and women can really be “just friends.”
Researchers brought in 88 pairs of opposite-sex friends from a U.S. university and asked them about any romantic feelings they felt (or didn’t feel) toward each other. To avoid potential awkward and/or friendship ending moments, the pairs were kept separate and asked not to discuss the study with each other later.
The most interesting finding was that most participants were totally wrong about how their friends felt about them. Men and women tended to project their feelings — romantic or platonic— onto their friends. The men were more often attracted to their female friends, and also more likely to believe that their female friends were attracted to them. The women, also mistaken, tended to believe that the lack of attraction they felt was mutual.
But, while it’s titillating to consider all of the miscommunication and misunderstanding at play in these friendships, there’s a fallacy at the root of the conclusion that men and women can’t really be friends: just because there’s physical attraction doesn’t mean there can’t be friendship. And that’s what this study seems to claim.
Sure, sexual attraction plays a big role in why we behave the way we do, from subconscious flirting to expensive makeup and gym memberships; but are we really such slaves to it that we can’t have normal conversations with people we find attractive? Look around you; are all of your friends total uggos? And did you plan it that way, to make sure you don’t stop talking mid-sentence and jump their bones?
I know that I’ve definitely been attracted to someone at first only to change my mind later, and vice versa. And I have friends that I know are attractive humans, but that doesn’t mean that while I talk to them I’m really thinking about how to get them into bed. Not all male/female friendships are, as a Scientific American article about the study suggested, “merely a façade, an elaborate dance covering up countless sexual impulses bubbling just beneath the surface.”
The article also latched on to the differences in the male responses vs. the female responses. “These results suggest that men, relative to women, have a particularly hard time being ‘just friends,’” the article says. It then continues to call the study “a bit of confirmation for stereotypes about sex-hungry males and naïve females.”
In a vast understatement, I’d say that that’s an oversimplification. The data is interesting to consider, in terms of the always-complicated dynamics of any human relationships, but I don’t think it proves any stereotypes, nor does it signal the end of opposite-gender friendships.