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UW-Eau Claire Researchers to Share Findings on Male-Female Friendships

RELEASED: April 14, 2008

Dr. April Bleske-Rechek
Dr. April Bleske-Rechek

EAU CLAIRE — Middle-aged adults who are less satisfied in their current romantic relationship consider attraction and flirtation as important reasons to maintain friendships with people of the opposite sex, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

"Although middle-aged adults reported less attraction overall to their cross-sex friends than did young adults, those who did report being attracted romantically to their friends were less satisfied with their current mates," Dr. April Bleske-Rechek, assistant professor of psychology, said of research she completed with student researchers. "I think this is a significant finding."

The research also found that young men are more attracted to their opposite sex friends and they consider flirtation and affirmation of their desirability to be more important reasons for maintaining the friendship than do young women or middle-aged adults, Bleske-Rechek said.

"Young men rated attraction and flirtation as a more important reason to maintain a cross-sex friendship than did young women," Bleske-Rechek said, noting that middle-aged men and women did not differ in their reported attraction to their cross-sex friends.

Past research suggests that sexual attraction and mating motives play a role in the initiation and development of some cross-sex friendships, Bleske-Rechek said. Studies also show that young men's attraction to their cross-sex friends is stronger than is women's, she said.

Researchers surveyed 42 men and 65 women ages 18-23, and 52 men and 90 women ages 27 to 52. Participants responded about a specific cross-sex friend who was not a romantic partner. They described the context in which the friendship began, and then rated 32 variables for the degree that each contributed to the maintenance of the friendship (e.g., common friends, someone to confide in). Finally, they reported their degree of romantic attraction to the friend.

Bleske-Rechek and student researchers will share their findings from the "Attraction in Young Adults' and Middle-Aged Adults' Cross-Sex Friendships" project during the 80th annual Midwestern Psychological Association conference May 1-3 in Chicago. They also will share findings from several other research projects:

  • "The Good and Bad of Friendship." Given the changes many people undergo in their 30s, it's likely the nature of their friendships change during that time. However, only a handful of studies have investigated friendships as a function of age and life stage. In this study, Bleske-Rechek and her students attempt to clarify adults' perceptions of the good and bad of friendship, and what they look for most in a friend. They consider age, gender and type of friendship (same-sex or cross-sex). On a written questionnaire, participants nominated the most beneficial and most costly aspects of their same-sex friendships; they did the same for their cross-sex friendships. Across age, gender and type of friendship, participants valued friendships for the emotional support and companionship they provided. But some costs and benefits varied. Middle-aged adults were more likely than young adults to say time is a cost of friendship. Both age groups said mating rivalry is a cost of same-sex friendships. In both age groups, women said sexual attraction was a cost of cross-sex friendships more often than did men. Men said sexual attraction was a benefit of cross-sex friendships more than women did.
  • "Beliefs about Mate Preferences and Actual Mate Preferences: No Convergence." The study investigated the prevalence of the belief that college students' mating desires mature during the college years from a sexually unrestricted, superficial style to a more commitment-oriented, less superficial style, and to determine if that belief reflects actual variation in mating desires. Eighty-four college students reported how they thought young people change in what they most desire in a relationship and partner as they move from being college freshmen to seniors. Next, 288 young adults allotted "mate dollars" to 10 desirable mate characteristics, and reported their past and foreseen number of sex partners. The data suggest that although men and women believe their peers' mating desires mature over time, the desires do not vary with age, and nor do sex differences in the preference for attractiveness and in desire for short-term sex.
  • "Trolley Problem Decisions Follow the Laws of Inclusive Fitness." Past research has shown that in hypothetical situations a person's propensity to act in an altruistic way is more likely when the situation is perilous, when the person in need is kin and when the person in need is young. This research tests for the effects of genetic relatedness, sex and age on moral decisions in a life-or-death situation through an experiment known as the Trolley Problem. The original Trolley Problem had a person decide if they would save the lives of five people tied to a track by flipping a switch to sacrifice the life of one person tied to an alternate track. In this study, researchers manipulated the sex, age and genetic relatedness of the person tied to the alternate track. A total of 241 men and 418 women responded to one version of the dilemma. Overall, women were less willing to flip the switch than were men. As expected, men's and women's decisions favored the well-being of younger and genetically related people. People save five over one, unless that one is a genetic relative.
  • "Can You Match These Friends? A Test of Genetic Similarity Theory." Genetic Similarity Theory proposes that people choose friends who resemble themselves at the genetic level. In this project, researchers asked raters to match pairs of same-sex friends on the basis of their physical appearance. They predicted raters would match friends at above-chance levels and that raters would match on the basis of similar levels of attractiveness and attention to appearance. Researchers photographed 12 pairs of female friends and 12 pairs of male friends. They asked 90 male and 136 female underclassmen to rate each person for their physical attractiveness and apparent intelligence, friendliness and attention to appearance. Then, a new sample of 102 men and 228 women attempted to match friends. Each person viewed one of eight versions of a 12-slide PowerPoint show. On every version, each of the first six slides showed four women and asked, "Which two of these women are friends"? The remaining slides showed men. For each slide, the probability of matching the friendship pair was 1 in 6. Men and women matched female friends more easily than they matched male friends. Overall, participants did not match male friends at above-chance levels. Female friends who had been rated more similarly in attractiveness and attention to appearance were matched more frequently.

Same- and opposite-sex friendship in young and middle adulthood is among Bleske-Rechek's areas of expertise. Her work in this area has received national attention.

For details about the research, contact Bleske-Rechek at 715-836-4641or bleskeal@uwec.edu.

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JB

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