Diverse friend groups promote better social cohesion and wellbeing

June 9, 2024

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Diverse friend groups promote better social cohesion and wellbeing

New research featuring more than 24,000 people has found that having diverse groups of friends improves wellbeing and social cohesion, despite people’s tendency to gravitate towards people more similar to them.

The study used data from adults in over 10,000 English neighborhoods to examine the composition of people’s social networks according to age, ethnicity, income, and education to understand the implications of homophily (preference for similar people) on social cohesion subjective well-being.

What the researchers say: “With diversity increasing worldwide, citizens in modern nations are encountering ever more opportunities to interact with people of different backgrounds, with different social characteristics. Despite this, people still have the tendency to gravitate towards those similar to themselves,” the lead author said. “Our findings revealed that despite this tendency, people with mixed social networks—comprising both similar and dissimilar people to themselves—reported higher levels of social cohesion within their neighborhoods which was closely associated with increased personal well-being.”

The researchers looked at four types of networks homophily, race, age, income and education and measured the diversity of respondents’ friend groups within these categories on a scale of 0 to 100%, along with life satisfaction levels and feelings about social cohesion.

The researchers found that feelings of social cohesion and satisfaction with life reached its peak when people had a friend group with about half (50%) of the members having a difference in age, race, income or education. People feel the most connected and happier when they have a group of friends that is mixed, comprising both similar and dissimilar friends.  

The implications of this research extend beyond individual friendships to broader societal structures. By embracing diversity and fostering inclusive environments, communities stand to benefit from greater social harmony and collective wellbeing.

The study's findings could inform policies and initiatives aimed at promoting harmony and inclusivity across various spheres of society, including education, workplace, and community settings.

"These results underscore the key role of embracing diversity in promoting stronger social bonds and enhancing overall societal cohesion. Having heterogeneous rather than homogeneous social networks is associated with the highest levels of social cohesion, which is a key source of well-being and provides empirical evidence that people from different groups—regardless of age, income, race, and other characteristics can benefit from living in harmony together,” the researchers explained.  “While interacting with people with the same characteristics may offer a sense of familiarity and comfort, our study suggests that embracing diversity is crucial for fostering resilience and adaptability in an ever-changing world.”

So, what? This is an interesting but, I believe, flawed study. The problem lies in the assumption that diversity has anything to do with the friendships. The bonding between people of diverse backgrounds could well result from their discovering commonalities that they share, thus reducing the diversity and consolidating the friendship. That would be in line with our evolutionary heritage.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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