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What can Social Psychology Tell us about Making and Keeping Friends in college?

By this time in the semester, a lot of first-time freshmen are asking the age-old question, “Why am I not making any friends in college?!” Well, of course, others may be so bogged down with friendships that they might not realize that many of those friendships may not last past the college years. So, let’s get this straight, this article is aimed at making true, long-lasting friendship that you can depend on over the years as you develop into a professional career.

How to Make and Keep Friends

Before you develop a life-long friendship, you actually need to find a friend. So who is going to make the best friend for you in college? Believe it or not, it has a lot to do with attraction. Readers who have previously studied social psychology will already be familiar with the ideas set forth in this article.

Physical Attraction and Making Friends

While physical attraction is a component in most romantic relationships (Luo & Zhang, 2009), research has shown that mere exposure can cause attraction between people. In other words, we like what we are used to. One example of mere exposure is a study where college students in 1977 were asked to choose between pictures of themselves from a mirror perspective or from a natural perspective of themselves. Participants liked the mirror images more because they were used to looking at themselves in the mirror. Friends of the participants liked the normal portraits of their friends because they were used to seeing them in real life (Mita, Dermer & Knight, 1977).

Come to think of it, is this why so many people post selfies of themselves in the mirror? Perhaps they are more attracted to this version of themselves.

The takehome point here is that the longer you are used to the people around you the more you might like them.

So, if at the beginning of the semester you feel like you have made no friends, hold on a bit longer. Don’t forget that almost everyone is getting used to new faces, and it just takes time to warm up.

Another way we are attracted to others is when we find common ground between us and others. While a lot of people say that opposites attract, this may not always be true. Klohnen and Luo (2003) found that people are more attracted to others with similar personalities. Other research suggests that sharing common physical traits like the length of hair or wearing glasses can attract two individuals to form a relationship (Mackinnon, Jordan, & Wilson, 2011).

Why do We Like People Who Are Similar to Us?

Photo Credit: Madhurima Handa

In high school, you may have seen many students of a certain type hanging around together. Reis (2007) offers several reasons as to why we choose friends who are like us. Firstly, by having friends who are similar to us, we are inviting people in our lives who understand us and reinforce our own beliefs. These can be political, religious, cultural, and whatever else. If they have similar beliefs or can even find common ground between religion or cultures, you will be set. People love when others affirm our beliefs rather than telling us, “No, you are completely wrong.” I mean, I’m sure we all have had friends like that, but how long have they stayed around?

Another reason could be the risk we assume when starting up a friendship. Reis (2007) tells us that if we think we share a lot of commonalities with another individual, they might actually like us in return. Therefore, there is less risk of rejection in trying to start a relationship. It works even better if there are shared hobbies and interests as the mere exposure theory states that the longer you are exposed to them, the more you will grow to like them.

Modest Jersey T-shirt

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The power of similarities goes even further than simply friendship. In a 2015 Harvard study, researchers found that teachers and students who perceived more similarities of each other had better relationships. The students with more perceived similarities with the teachers earned higher grades (Gehlbach et al, 2015)! In other words, try to make that social connection with your teacher, it’s well worth it. See my post on impressing your teacher for more information.

Making Long-Lasting Friendships

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Now that we understand how we perceive others and how they perceive us as potential friends, how can we keep and maintain those friendships?

Social psychology research tells us that according to social exchange theory, people want equity in a relationship. In other words, they want in return what they put into it. So if your friend is always the one calling or texting you, making plans to go out, and etc, it could turn out that the relationship will be short-lived as they gradually tire out from doing all the work to keep the relationship alive.

Yes, it is work to keep any relationship strong. The sooner you live by that, the sooner you can distinguish a good relationship from one doomed for failure.

Moreover, the fate of your relationship can also depend upon the type of relationship it is. An exchange relationship is one where it’s almost like a business. If a classmate shares notes with you for one assignment, they may expect something in return. For relationships like this, where quid pro quo comes into play, it will likely always be this way. Be forewarned, if a favor is not repaid, this friend will likely make it known (and not always in the most polite form). Cue a silly cow meme:

On the other hand, you may be in a communal relationship in which friends only do things out of concern for another and not for something in return.

What’s more is that if you can establish which relationship you are in, it’s likely that the type of relationship will not change whether you’ve been married to that person or simply friends (Clark & Mills, 1979).

How Can Friendships Stay Committed?

Whether or not your friendship(s) are destined for the long-term depends on three main factors. Rusbult (1983) argues for a 3-tiered investment model in relationships including satisfaction, investments, and quality of alternatives. Although Rusbult’s research pertains to heterosexual relationships, a lot can be applied to simple friendship relationships.


Firstly, people want a relationship that satisfies them. Satisfaction can include the benefits of the relationship, having fun, laughing, learning something, and not being lonely. While in turn, negative aspects of the relationship can trample the benefits. The cost of friendship involves the expenses of eating out/ activities/ time, and arguments. So in terms of rewards versus costs, the rewards must outweigh the costs of the relationship to succeed. Beware that your friends will compare this relationship to other relationships in their past, so as long as it is better than their past relationships, you should be good to go. Let’s move to the second tier.
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While this portion may be mostly aimed at married or live-together couples, investments are often measured in terms of how long you have been together, trips you have taken, children shared. However, in normal friendships, investments can be measured in the secrets you have shared that gives that person an exclusive look into your life.

The sad part of investments in relationships is that it can often be the most defining aspect of whether the two individuals will stay together. As in cases of domestic abuse, an abused spouse may often return to an abuser due to children shared and time spent in the relationship.

Quality of Alternatives

Have you ever had a friend, drop you for someone else? I have. This factor falls under the quality of alternatives tier in Rusbult’s (1983) theory which states that people will have a better commitment to one another if no better alternatives are around.

However, if a relationship has a good level of satisfaction and investments, it’s likely that this tier can be devalued especially if you have committed friends.


So to answer the question of how to make friends in college, we must find common ground with the friends we want. Appearance has a lot to do with the likeliness of making friends, so shower regularly. Keep up with the haircuts. Just taking good care of yourself can begin an attraction.

Know that it takes time for others to warm up to you. Don’t expect to make a life-long friendship on the first day of class. You might meet at that time, but exposure over time will do the best to increase the likeliness of forming a friendship.

Once you have a friend that you can get along with, make sure that both participants are equally adding to the relationship. If not, save yourself from despair and find someone who will proactively work on the relationship rather than you alone.

Determine what type of relationship you have, communal or exchange then realize that each requires a different type of contribution.

Lastly, keep satisfaction high by continuing to work on your relationship and work through problems. Apologize when you’re wrong and know that friendship has greater value than money.

You are reading this article because maybe you are seeking advice for college. I have a page dedicated to advice for college. You can even write me a message and I will post an answer for you on my advice column.

Leave your comments in the comment section below! Please share this article with anyone struggling to make friends in college. Click on any social media icon below to share.

References and Further Reading

  • Clark, M. S., & Mills, J. (1979). Interpersonal attraction in exchange and communal relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 12-24.
  • Gehlbach, H., Brinkworth, M. E., King, A. M., Hsu, L. M., McIntyre, J., & Rogers, T. (2015). Creating birds of similar feathers. Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Research Working Paper Series. Retrieved from http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/todd_rogers/files/creating_birds_0.pdf
  • Klohnen, E. C., & Luo, S. (2003). Interpersonal attraction and personality: What is attractive–self-similarity, ideal similarity, complementarity or attachment security? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 709-722.
  • Luo, S., & Zhang, G. (2009). What leads to romantic attraction: Similarity, reciprocity, security, or beauty? Evidence from a speed-dating study. Journal of Personality, 77, 933-964.
  • Mackinnon, S. P., Jordan, C. H., & Wilson, A. E. (2011). Birds of a feather sit together: Physical similarity predicts seating choice. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 879-892.
  • Mita, T. H., Dermer, M., & Knight, J. (1977). Reversed facial images and the mere exposure hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 587-601.
  • Reis, H. T. (2007). Similarity-Attraction Effect. Encyclopedia of Social Psychology (Vol. 2), Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., (Eds.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Rusbult, C. E. (1983). A longitudinal test of the investment model: The development (and deterioration) of satisfaction and commitment in heterosexual involvements. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 101-117.

Author: College Mamma

College Mamma is a professor who blogs for students. She is also a mother of two and a lover of coffee.