University Of Birmingham Researcher Explains The Benefits Of Having Diverse Friendships

Researcher Miguel R. Ramos explains why having friends from all walks of life can enhance your overall well being.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 02, 2024

A new study published in Psychological Science investigated the effects of homophily—the tendency to associate with people who are similar to us—and heterophily—the tendency for people to collect in diverse groups—on social networks and individual well-being.

I recently spoke with the lead author, Dr Miguel R. Ramos—a researcher from the Department of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology at the University of Birmingham. Our discussion focused on how social tendencies—such as homophily and heterophily—influence the composition of social networks and their subsequent impact on subjective well-being. Here's a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the relationship between diverse social networks, social cohesion and well-being?

I study the effects of diversity (e.g., the ethnic or religious diversity of a location). It is fascinating to observe that even when some locations become more diverse, people in these locations still report very low levels of mixing.

This makes sense because human beings tend to gravitate towards people who share the same background as them. We are social animals, and most people who are part of similar groups can extract benefits from this. For example, previous research has shown that belonging to groups is important for our well-being. We can get support from other group members.

For minority groups, this is particularly important because they form groups that protect them from exterior factors such as discrimination—which can be highly harmful to their well-being and health.

However, this form of social organization is not suitable for a society or neighborhood because different social groups will not be able to connect. This will create divided societies suffering from a lack of social cohesion.

Because of this, together with my colleagues, I was interested in understanding the implications of a lack of connectedness with people who have different characteristics—such as a different race or ethnicity, age, and level of education and income.

How would you describe homophily and heterophily?

Homophily is the human tendency to gravitate toward people who share the same background, and this was the key focus of this study. Heterophily is the opposite tendency—that is, a tendency to connect with people of a different background.

Although both are important, homophily might be stronger because, when we observe groups in different locations and societies, it is more common to find people being sorted and grouped by having the same characteristic (e.g., the same age).

How do diverse social networks affect social cohesion, and how is it linked to well-being?

In our study, we found that the relationship between network homophily and well-being was explained by a factor called social cohesion. In simpler terms, social cohesion is the sense of belonging and connectedness within our communities—which plays a crucial role in translating our social network characteristics into happiness.

Our study showed that when we achieve a balance between similar and dissimilar friends, it allows us to feel more connected with our surrounding social environment, and this is a critical element of our well-being. The opposite also holds true.

Imagine someone who lives in a location where all groups are completely divided, with people being grouped according to characteristics such as ethnicity, age and education—with no mixing. In these situations, it can be difficult to feel connected with the social environment, and this might have negative consequences for this person's well-being.

What are some common challenges or barriers that people face when trying to build diverse social networks?

One of the most important barriers is homophily. Even without realizing, people connect with others who have similar characteristics. It is important to be aware of this natural tendency and, when possible, to seek other forms of interactions and connections.

Another critical barrier is a lack of opportunity for contact with diverse groups. Perhaps because of homophily and other factors, we end up being surrounded by people who have the same age, educational background, income, etc.—with very few opportunities to make friendships outside of these groups.

Lately, the presence of negative stereotypes is another significant barrier. These stereotypes pervade societies worldwide, and affect various ethnic groups. However, the impact of such stereotypes is not limited to ethnicity alone; they also target people from different age groups, income levels and more.

What practical steps can communities and individuals take to foster diverse social networks and enhance social cohesion?

To foster diverse social networks, people should be aware of homophily and the advantages of connecting with people from diverse groups. Our research studied friendships between people from different races or ethnicities. However, we found that the same effects apply to friendships between people from different age groups, education and income levels in encouraging individual well-being.

To mitigate the issue of opportunity for contact, some locations can organize events where different people can meet and have a chance for deeper interactions, which is important for social cohesion.

Also, councils should work and provide facilities for people of different ages, socioeconomic statuses, cultural backgrounds, etc., to better interact and intermingle. This will help to create more cohesive societies.

Of course, a lot of work still needs to be done to reduce negative stereotypes and all other forms of bias and discrimination. This is a collective effort that already has produced good results, but societies, communities, and people still need to do more.

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