Daniel Hruschka and the Book of Friendship

Dan Hruschka is an anthropologist who, after three years as a post-doctoral fellow at The Santa Fe Institute, is now an assistant professor at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University.

University of California Press has just published his book Friendship: Development, Ecology and Evolution of a Social Relationship. I’m really excited about this book, as it summarizes Dan’s ground-breaking integrative research on friendship over the past ten years.

We had a quick discussion about his book by email. Here’s the interview.

Congratulations, Dan, on your book! That’s great news. So how do you summarize it?

Human friendship poses a profound evolutionary puzzle. Close friends frequently help each other unconditionally, with little concern for past behaviors or future returns. But, such unconditional aid also puts one at risk of exploitation at the hands of false friends. Without commonly known checks on exploitation, such as tit-for-tat accounting, how do people manage to cultivate and maintain such bonds of unconditional aid?

The book, Friendship, tackles this puzzle by imagining the human bond of friendship as a living organism and posing a number of questions that a natural historian might ask. How does friendship work? How does it develop and change in diverse environments? How does it intersect with kinship and romantic relationships? And how might it have evolved?

Reviewing cross-cultural, experimental, and ethnographic data across the social and behavioral sciences, the book aims to answer these questions and move closer to resolving the puzzle of human friendship.

Can you describe one of your examples that really makes us think differently about friendship?

When you look at friendship cross-culturally, there are many surprises! Consider the fact that in societies around the world, close friends will sanctify their relationships with elaborate public ceremonies not unlike American weddings or that parents or elders can arrange their children’s friendships in much the same way that marriages are arranged in many parts of the world.

I think one of the more interesting findings, and one that reveals our own American preferences and taboos, concerns the kinds of things that friends are expected to help each other with. For example, in the U.S., we often expect friends to talk through personal problems and disclose deep secrets. Indeed, U.S. researchers often impose this criterion on definitions of friendship.

However, there are many places in the world where such verbal, emotional support is only a minor concern in friendships. And it turns out that our American ideal doesn’t even fit very well in the U.S., where many people are involved in close friendships in which such talk therapy doesn’t play a role. Conversely, in the U.S., there are strong taboos against lending large sums of money to friends. But, in many societies, such costly material aid is the sine qua non of close friendship.

This variation is interesting, but it also raises an important question. What makes a relationship friendship? A major emphasis of the book is that looking at friendship in terms of what help friends provide just confuses matters. Rather, what defines friendship in these diverse settings is how friends provide help.

The people who come to Neuroanthropology are a diverse audience, with a range of interdisciplinary interests. Tell me more about how you study friendship using an interdisciplinary approach.

Friends aren’t the only players in a friendship. Emotions, expectations, hormones, neurotransmitters, brain circuits, gifts, rituals, and social and cultural institutions all play a role in maintaining the way that friends behave toward each other. Each discipline brings its own theoretical and methodological strengths to the study of this diverse array of players, and how they operate in a given friendship.

On-the-ground ethnographies can reveal the cultural and social process that shape friendship in particular settings. Studies that sample bodily processes, either through imaging the brain in action or measuring chemical levels in saliva and blood, can shed light on what goes on within us when we interact with friends. Behavioral experiments from psychology and economics provide a controlled way to compare different hypotheses about why friends are more generous and cooperative than are strangers.

The ethnographic record and cross-cultural studies can tell us what friendship looks like in a wide range of cultural settings, and whether something like friendship occurs reliably across a wide range of human groups. Economic and evolutionary game theory provide a set of mathematical tools for understanding what conditions are necessary for unconditional aid among friends to maintain itself. And the list could go on.

Each of these approaches brings an important set of insights and tools to the table in understanding how friendship works, and a major challenge and joy of writing of the book was finding ways to integrate them.

Thanks, Dan!

Thank you. This was fun.

-Link to the University of California Press’ website for Friendship: Development, Ecology and Evolution of a Social Relationship.

-Link to US Amazon’s site for Friendship: Development, Ecology, and Evolution of a Social Relationship.

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2 Responses to Daniel Hruschka and the Book of Friendship

  1. Pingback: Cultures of friendships « Mind Hacks

  2. Thanks for the nice read :-)

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