You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.

Psychology of Social Connection

Entries from October 2020

The 1170 Words(ish) That Lead to Love

October 24th, 2020 · 5 Comments

Let’s go back in time for a moment: it’s your freshman year. You’re chilling in your tiny common room on a Friday night when your friends tell you there’s a crazy good party happening in the Pfoho Igloo (despite knowing that nothing “good” happens in the Pfoho Igloo…but oh well). You make the trek over to the Quad, and have a fun night of dancing, hanging out with friends, and feeling absurdly sweaty. Suddenly, you make eye contact with someone across the crowded room (*gasp*) – you try to make your move but oh no! You’ve forgotten that the floors are (literally) drenched in sweat! You fall to the floor, and the moment is ruined. Off you and your friends run to your next (probably sweaty) destination. 

Despite honestly comical encounters like the one we forced you to relive above, now that we find ourselves sitting in our childhood bedrooms, swiping on Tinder when we’re supposed to be watching a lecture, and dreaming of the last time we had any sort of human contact can definitely leave anyone feeling nostalgic for a simpler time. And even in “normal” times, it can feel like you’re constantly in uncharted waters when trying to find (and keep!) a potential relationship. So how do we spark and maintain these romantic connections according to the ~literature~? How can we translate this into our actual normal lives, especially as college students? And how on EARTH do we keep that going now that we’re online? You wouldn’t know it by looking at my love life (disclaimer: this is Rachel, I’m not about to throw James under the bus with my self-deprecating joke), but we’ve got the #hot #tips for all of you lonely (and not so lonely!) readers. 

Rachel: ~Creating That ~Spark~

As we saw in class, any good conversation about forming new romantic connections has to start with thinking about our own dealmakers and dealbreakers. What are the qualities and ~vibes~ that make you interested in someone in the first place? What are the things that send you running the moment you discover them? Even just this exercise of stepping back and reflecting on what pulls you toward or pushes you away from certain people shows one of the biggest parts of sparking new romantic connections — theory of mind and perspective-taking (Ramenzi et al, 2020). By taking the time to understand yourself and a potential partner, you can both forge stronger social bonds and avoid negative ones, like when you try to flirt with someone who isn’t into you (Bohns & DeVincent, 2019). As we’ve seen time and time again, this skill is an essential one for creating those social connections we all crave, both for friendships and romantic relationships. 

So you’ve done plenty of hardcore reflection, you’ve read all the papers, and now it’s time to apply it to your own life. Easy, right? Unfortunately… probably not. In Actual Real Life™, you can’t necessarily just go walk up to someone and start asking them about the last time they cried in front of another person. So how do we go about actually applying what we’ve learned here into our daily lives, especially in a Zoom world? 

First off, as we’ve learned, proximity and familiarity have a LOT to do with forming connections, both romantic and platonic. While before that might have meant living in the same dorm or going to the same party in the Igloo, there are still plenty of chances to recreate that online. Maybe take inspiration from Moreland and Beach’s study on familiarity and attraction to actually turn on your camera for once in that one giant lecture class (Moreland & Beach, 1992). Or, you could figure out their social media habits and both be “active” on Facebook at the same time (basically the digital version of proximity?). If all else fails, Zoom now lets you rearrange the screens in the order of your choice, so at least you can pretend to have some proximity to them! 

Beyond proximity and familiarity, communication and self-disclosure are also two essential ingredients to creating that perfect romance spark that’s still possible in today’s virtual world. It might be strange at first (especially if this is someone you’ve never *actually* met in person), but being willing to be vulnerable in your conversations with another person (whether on Zoom, over text, or in person) can go a long way (Hall, 2019). And above all, resist the urge to ghost! You might not be used to this much social interaction after hiding indoors for six months, but steady and engaging communication really can make the difference between a ~potential flame~ actually becoming a spark, or just burning out. Now go forth and find that person of your dreams, young grasshopper<3

James: Maintaining Romantic Relationships

Now, once you spark a connection with the person of your dreams, what do you do next? Initiating the connection is the first step, but much more goes into fostering a healthy and mutually beneficial romantic relationship.  As we learned in blog posts surrounding friendships, in order for a relationship to blossom into something special, reciprocation is essential.  This means that each member of a relationship must be putting in equal effort to make the relationship flourish.  Basically, if you get lazy and begin to neglect your partner, you can expect long nights filled with sorrow, and way too much ice cream.

One of the major factors in maintaining a strong romantic relationship is to practice gratitude and appreciation (Gordon et al, 2012).  As we talked about before, reciprocation is important, but why?  Most of us can recall memories in which we worked very hard to please another person, but then received no reciprocation or gratitude from them in return.  Not only is this a defeating feeling, but this lack of appreciation for your efforts can also deter you from trying to please this person again because of the fear of rejection.  On the other hand, research suggests that showing gratitude to your partner can lead to more appreciative behavior in the future.  Therefore, the simple action of expressing gratitude to your partner and appreciating the little efforts that they put in on a consistent basis can promote a healthier and more reciprocal relationship. Remember ladies and gentlemen, if you truly care about a particular person, it is imperative to diligently show your gratitude and appreciation for them on a consistent basis.  These behaviors will carry a relationship beyond the initial spark, and strengthen romantic bonds.

There are really two phases of romantic relationships, initiation and maintenance. Simple, right? Wrong! We are not trying to understate the difficulty in finding and maintaining romantic relationships (we understand, times are tough), but we are attempting to relay some concise insight from scientific research about behaviors that may promote healthy relationships. So if you’re like us and struggling in the romantic department, try using some of this information to lock down that special someone just in time for (virtual) cuffing season. Godspeed, friends.

Much love (hopefully),

Rachel & James



Bohns, V. K., & DeVincent, L. A. (2019). Rejecting unwanted romantic advances is more difficult than suitors realize. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10(8), 1102-1110.

Byrne, D., Clore, G. L., & Smeaton, G. (1986). The attraction hypothesis: Do similar attitudes affect anything? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(6), 1167–1170. 

Friends – Spongebob Rainbow. Google Search.

Gordon, A.M., Impett, E.A., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2012). To have and to hold: Gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 257-274.

Hall, J.A. (2019). How many hours does it take to make a friend? Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36(4), 1278-1296. 

Jones, D. (2015, January 9). The 36 Questions That Lead to Love.

Moreland, R. L., & Beach, S. R. (1992). Exposure effects in the classroom: The development of affinity among students. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 28(3), 255–276. 

Movie Needs. (2018, December 7). Dun Dun Dunnn sound effect [Video]. YouTube.

Ramezani, A., Ghamari, M., Jafari, A., & Aghdam, G. F. (2020). The effectiveness of a theory of mind training program in promoting empathy between married couples. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 19(1), 1-25.

Scooby Doo Halloween GIF (2020). Giphy. Retrieved 23 October 2020, from

Tags: Uncategorized

(How) To be, or not to be (in a relationship)

October 24th, 2020 · 4 Comments

Have you ever gone on Instagram or Facebook on Valentine’s Day (while you yourself were single) and had your feelings hurt by the fact that everyone and their mom seems to be in a relationship? Pls it can’t be just me. Or maybe you’ve had your entire extended family grill you at Thanksgiving dinner about whether you got a bae, and if not, why you don’t got a bae? If so, I bet (after wishing to be a smol amoeba floating away into the abyss), you’ve at least asked yourself “why?” Why do we care ~SO MUCH~ about being in relationships? How does one,,, relationship? And how do you do it well (or not so well)? Read and learn, young grasshopper, read and learn.

– • – • – • –

Why do we fall in love?: (reason #3512458045 why humans are weird) -Gaby

WHAT’S UP GUYS welcome to your very own crash course on Human Monogamy™:

A long



long time ago (~5-7 million years ago, to be exact-ish), human apes would diverge from our last common ancestor (LCA) shared with bonobos and chimpanzees (Stoneking, 2008, pp. S46-S47). And so began the Story of Us.

For context, the LCA looked and behaved NOTHING like modern humans and rather is hypothesized by many in the field (including Harvard’s very own Dr. Daniel Lieberman) to have more closely resembled chimpanzees (Lieberman, 2013). As such, in our initial splitting off from African apes it was easiest to keep a lot of key chimp-like characteristics, which meant that ancient humans had a very, very spicy and promiscuous mating structure in which both males and females had multiple mates. This. Makes. Sense. For males→ you maximize the amount of offspring while minimizing responsibility to care for each one, essentially nullifying paternal load. For females → you maximize the diversity of male genetic contribution to your offspring, thereby increasing your chances of producing evolutionarily fit babies. Boom. You’ve now got selection wrapped around your finger.

“Unless???” –our ultra-social human nature.

As it turns out, somewhere along the course of our evolutionary history, humans started to live longer than the average chimp. As such, we could spend a longer time developing during childhood, giving us time to grow bigger brains and bodies (Chapis, 2017). Bigger brains and bodies required a whole lot more energy though, which made baby-making a pretty expensive investment given heightened parental responsibility to supply so much food (energy) and resources for each kid. Moms no longer wanted so many mates to keep track of due to paternal uncertainty (males are more likely to invest in their offspring if they are sure that it’s his genetic material he’s protecting), and Dads now wanted to keep it to one mate so as to minimize paternal cost and maximize investment to a select group of offspring. Who would’ve thought big headed babies could bring people together ugh <3

And so, just like our brains evolved to prefer to be in groups and care about what others think, we also evolved psychological “fail-safes” (i.e. norm psychology, jealousy, oxytocin release that gives you those warm fuzzy feelings when you’re around your partner) to make sure that we engage in monogamous relationships through the universal acceptance of social constructs such as dating and marriage and #cuffingszn. 

P.S. Did you know! Though not as ~unique~ as it is in humans, pair bonding can also be found in other species! My all-time favorite example is of the Titi monkeys, who intertwine their tails together when sitting next to each other or when sleeping :’)) 


How do we stay in love?: Ingredients for a long-lasting relationship -Suyeon

So now that you know why we fall in love, let’s talk about how we stay in love— starting with the fact that dating someone does not mean that that person will stay with you forever. You may find out that you are not compatible with each other or have conflicts so often that lead you to think about breaking up with your partner. Although I love my boyfriend, I sometimes give up everything and declare freedom when we have conflicts over and over.  

Then the question is, how do we maintain our romantic relationships? There are two important ingredients that could enable your relationship to last long as you want: Perceived understanding and gratitude. According to Gordon and Chen (2016) conflict becomes detrimental only when there is an absence of perceived understanding between two partners. Once your partner seems to understand what you are upset about, solving a conflict becomes an easy problem. Surely, it is hard to try to understand another person’s mind when I am upset—which is why conflicts, in most cases, are detrimental. One quick solution I suggest is to sleep! Whenever a conflict arises, don’t try to argue with your partner at the moment—I would sleep and think about what I would say after I wake up. It becomes much easier to understand from the other’s perspective after you sleep tight. 

Another ingredient for a long-lasting relationship is gratitude. Gordon et al. (2012) demonstrate that people who feel they are appreciated by their partner tend to feel more gratitude towards their partner. Indeed, feeling appreciated could be a reward in a relationship. We feel valued as our partners express gratitude towards us. Therefore, feeling appreciated promotes desirable behaviors within humans since we perceive the feeling as a reward followed by those behaviors. We never get tired of hearing “Thank you”, right? 


Why is it so hard to say “no” ? – Anna

We’ve talked about what might make us fall in love and how to maintain that love, but what happens when a suitor makes unwanted advances & the person being pursued reluctantly accepts it? Has this ever happened to you? Coming from NYC, I can relate to these unwanted advances, where my responses are rarely made based on my own wants and desires, but rather on how I think the person talking to me will react. Let’s imagine someone approaches you in the subway and asks for your number. You look ahead and try not to make eye contact, but the more you ignore them, the more aggravated they become, and they begin to speak more loudly and get closer to you to elicit a reaction. You decide to look at them and smile, and tell them you have a significant other already, but you are flattered by their advance. All the while, you don’t have a significant other and you’re utterly disgusted by this person. Why sugarcoat it? 

Bohns and Devincent’s article “Rejecting Unwanted Advances Is More Difficult Than Suitors Realize” attribute this response to the fact that rejecting someone is fundamentally “awkward and uncomfortable” because of the egocentric dynamics at play (2019). A suitor is much more likely to underestimate their target’s discomfort in an advance, both because of rationalizations that might protect their ego & the tendency for targets to sugarcoat their rejections, such as by laughing it off or ignoring it rather than outright rejecting them. Revisiting the subway, you may have decided to lie about having a significant other out of fear or guilt. You know it’s easier to defend rejection when you have a significant other, so the rejection will seem as though you had no choice but to reject them, making it easier for the suitor to accept it without taking a huge hit to their ego. Even further, this sugarcoating may have been due to genuine fear of getting hurt or harassed by an aggravated suitor who’s ego might get easily bruised. 

Overall, we see two things going on. You, the target of the unwanted advance, are more aware of the other, what their intentions may be, and how they may react to rejection. Meanwhile, your suitor is less aware of your discomfort and is guided by their confidence that you’ll reciprocate. If this is the case, what should you do in cases of unwanted advances? As a psychologist, I’d say tell your suitor about the discomfort you feel, and let them get a better understanding of your feelings in the self-other model that could guide their actions. But, as a city girl, I’d say, smile, nod, and get the heck out of there. 

– • – • – • –

When it comes to love, you never know. Maybe the road to finding your soulmate will be completely by chance or an uphill battle of “not the ones”. We’re here to tell you not to sweat it too much, since there’s actually a lot of psychology behind why you fall for someone and why you might not. So, the next time you find yourself crushin’ hard on someone, just hoping that you don’t or that they don’t mess it up, relax a little bit! Have faith in yourself and the fact that it’s literally in our nature to gravitate towards others. Take a deep breath, read up on our do’s and don’ts on finding love, and the rest should be history 🙂


Anna, Gaby, & Suyeon 



Bohns, V. K., & DeVincent, L. A. (2019). Rejecting unwanted romantic advances is more difficult than suitors realize. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10(8), 1102-1110

Chapais, B. (2017). From Chimpanzee Society to Human Society: Bridging the Human Gap. Chimpanzees and human evolution (427-463). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Gordon, Amie M, & Chen, Serena. (2016). Do You Get Where I’m Coming From?: Perceived Understanding Buffers Against the Negative Impact of Conflict on Relationship Satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 110(2), 239-260.

Gordon, A.M., Impett, E.A., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2012). To have and to hold: Gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 257-274.

Lieberman, D.E. (2013). The Story of the Human Body. New York, Pantheon Books.
Stoneking, M. (2008). Human origins. EMBO Reports, 9(1S), S46-S50.

Tags: Uncategorized

8 Ways to Create a Stronger Relationship

October 24th, 2020 · 3 Comments


  1. Go to a workout class together. If you like to be active and get your sweat on, invite your significant other to come with you! This an amazing chance to show your partner how hard you’ve been working and what they’ve been missing this whole time. Not only will it be a fun activity; studies show that after doing an arousing activity with each other, couples felt more satisfied and in love with their significant other (Aron et al., 2000). I know I’ve been dying to get my boyfriend to an OrangeTheory fitness class with me.  Now that I know he’ll fall more in love with me after the class – I NEED to try it. Back to the point – who cares if you’re not a Soul Cycle or Barry’s Bootcamp guru – get moving with your partner and they’ll love you more than ever! I recommend trying an Instagram TV workout – it’s free and it can be done in the comfort of your home. Get up and get active!

      2. Write letters to each other. I know that it can be hard to write someone a letter. You might feel like you’re being sappy and maybe the idea of sharing your actual feelings about someone makes you cringe. However, studies show that people who feel more appreciated by their partners are more appreciative of them regularly (Gordon et al., 2012). Gordon et al. (2012) demonstrates how important it is to practice gratitude towards your partner, sharing findings that support how beneficial it is for maintaining a healthy, intimate bond. Now, I’m not telling you to do this every week, but setting a goal to do this once a year for Thanksgiving or a birthday can greatly improve your relationship. The person you love, deserves to know how much you appreciate them. It will make them feel good and lead to relationship benefits. There’s nothing wrong with telling someone you’re grateful for them – don’t be afraid

       3. Go on a double date. Maybe double dating doesn’t appeal to you. If you haven’t been on an orchestrated double date before, don’t feel bad. I haven’t either! But, I’m telling you, you have to go plan one right after you’re done reading this post because hanging out with other friends and couples can lead to benefits to your own relationship. You might be thinking, “I already feel like me and my partner don’t get enough alone time. Why would I purposely invite another couple and take away from our time together?!” Well!!! Studies show that couples felt closer to their partners after having an interaction with another couple (Slatcher, 2010). If you haven’t gone on a double date before, I challenge you to go on a date with another couple. The feeling of excitement that you had on your first date with your partner may be recreated when you go on a double date with another couple (Slatcher, 2010). While you might be hesitant, a double date can make you feel excited and closer to your partner than before. Try that new sushi restaurant, go bowling, take a morning walk, or maybe even carve pumpkins – with another couple, of course!




        4. Use “we-talk”. Words like “we” and “us” can be very powerful in showing interdependence on a romantic partner, emphasizing how they affect your thoughts and feelings, and highlighting a transition from being self-oriented to relationship oriented. Studies show couples who use more “we” and “us” are more likely to have healthy, positive relationship behaviors like being supportive during stressful times. Moreover, individuals in the “we” talk couples reported higher scores for mental and physical health and relationship satisfaction (Karen et al., 2019). In relationships, you are only part of the whole – show that you are thinking of your partner, and tell them with the power of “we”!

         5. Hug! (Or other stuff). Physical affection is super important in a relationship – not just sex. Holding hands, hugging, or just a warm touch can affect release hormones like oxytocin, which calms us and reduces stress. In an experiment where married couples had more physical contact, they exhibited lower blood pressure and positive effects on several stress sensitive systems (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2008). Physical affection can also improve your mood and increase the likelihood of more physical activity (Burleson et al. 2007). I know the whole PDA thing can be a lot, so just wait until you are in private and give your partner a kiss or hug. As it gets colder, don’t be afraid to grab a snuggly blanket and cuddle – matching pjs optional, kind of. 

         6. Give compliments. We all like getting compliments – being told we look nice, we are good at something, etc. But, in romantic relationships, compliments should be about both physical and non-physical qualities – telling someone they are pretty or sexy or have beautiful eyes is not enough. Meltzer and McNulty found that physical compliments and valuation was only associated with positive relationship satisfaction when it was paired with compliments about non-physical qualities, like interests, personality, or intelligence. Emphasizing what you like about your partner and going beyond the superficial, physical level can show a deeper understanding of their character (Meltzer and McNulty, 2014). Next time your partner does something nice, tell them how caring and kind they are. When they help you finish your annoying chem pset, compliment their brain. 




          7. Be a good listener. There’s a difference between hearing and listening. All too often your partner may complain that they do not feel heard. Heck, you might not feel heard either! But hearing happens naturally without a choice. What everyone really wants is someone to make the conscious effort of listening to what we say, internalizing our words, and taking on our perspective. A major hallmark of poor relationships is low cognitive and affective empathy. Luckily, research shows that we can work on this (Ramezani et al, 2020). Putting yourself in your partner’s shoes can go a long way in helping you understand what your partner may want or need and, more importantly, why? Everyone has heard the trope of the jerk boyfriend and crazy girlfriend, but rarely do people act without a motive, so instead of hearing something and jumping to conclusions, ask open questions to learn why your partner feels a certain way. Give them a chance to feel listened to.

         8. Stay in the moment. Regardless of whether you and your partner prefer to bar hop or stay at home for a little soirée, chances are your phones are coming with you. You look forward to this event and spending some quality time together, but little did you know that you were bringing the rest of the world with you. I often find myself in a room full of others, but they are only there in person because their spirit is with that guy they have not seen since high school on Facebook. There is reason to believe that the number of social media accounts you keep up with and your level of technological addiction is negatively affecting your relationships (Abbasi, 2019). The next time you’re with your partner and find yourself staring at a screen, consider refocusing your attention onto the people around you in lieu of the people hundreds of miles away. And if you find yourself relegated to second place by a circuit board, consider gently reminding your partner that the people that matter most are right there with him or her in that moment.




Abbasi, Irum Saeed. “Social media and committed relationships: What factors make our romantic relationship vulnerable?.” Social Science Computer Review 37.3 (2019): 425-434.

Aron, A., Norman, C. C., Aron, E. N., McKenna, C., & Heyman, R. E. (2000). Couples’ shared 

participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(2), 273–284.

Burleson, M.H., Trevathan, W.R. & Todd, M. (2007). In the Mood for Love or Vice Versa? Exploring the Relations Among Sexual Activity, Physical Affection, Affect, and Stress in the Daily Lives of Mid-Aged Women. Arch Sex Behav 36, 357–368

Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2012). To have and to hold: 

gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. Journal of Personality 

and Social Psychology, 103(2), 257–274.

Holt-Lunstad, J., Birmingham, W. A., & Light, K. C. (2008) Influence of a “Warm Touch” Support Enhancement Intervention Among Married Couples on Ambulatory Blood Pressure, Oxytocin, Alpha Amylase, and Cortisol. Psychosomatic Medicine, 70(9), 976-985

Karan, A., Rosenthal, R., & Robbins, M. L. (2019). Meta-analytic evidence that we-talk predicts relationship and personal functioning in romantic couples. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36(9), 2624–2651.

Meltzer, A. L., & McNulty, J. K. (2014). “Tell me I’m sexy…and otherwise valuable:” Body Valuation and Relationship Satisfaction. Personal Relationships, 21(1), 68–87.

Ramezani, A., Ghamari, M., Jafari, A., & Aghdam, G. F. (2020). The Effectiveness of a ToM Training Program in Promoting Empathy Between Married Couples. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 19(1), 1-25.

Slatcher, R. B. (2010). When Harry and Sally met Dick and Jane: Creating closeness between 

couples. Personal Relationships, 17(2), 279–297.

Tags: Uncategorized

6 Relationship Stages That Only College Students Will Understand (#3 Will Shock You!)

October 23rd, 2020 · 4 Comments

Let’s start off this post the way Prof. Perry started off the lecturette for this week: with music. Who listens to top music tracks?? College kids. What do college kids like?? Dancing, partying, having sex, listening to music, drinking and, well, other such substances. But mostly, ~romance~. What are pretty much all top 40 most popular songs about, going back to the 1960s?? Everything I just mentioned college kids like, but again, mostly ~~romance~~ (Christensen et al, 2018). This isn’t a coincidence. Most humans love, well, love. And Kat and I figured that since we’re all probably missing the spicy moments of meeting or crushing on a potential romantic partner on campus, we’d remind you (and ourselves) of the typical on campus love story. 

So, here are the 6 stages of a college romance. ?


Stage 1: The Butterflies. ?

You look at the top-right corner of your screen and 3 digits haunt you: 1:01 AM. You look at the bottom-left corner and breathe a sigh of resignation: 53 Words. Espresso in hand, you look around the quiet floor of Lamont Library and you see them. It seems like you see them everywhere, after all, you’re in two of the same classes. Here, they’re wearing jeans and a Patagonia sweater, but still manages to get your heart rate up and release butterflies in your stomach. You see their head buried in John Stuart Mill and start to wonder, maybe I should also find a Patagonia sweater (and no, unlike most Harvard students, you actually don’t have a kink for Patagonia fleeces) and read about liberty… That’ll make a good conversation topic.

Welcome to your crush! To you, they feel like they’re the one and the sole person you’re attracted to. But if you believe this is just a simple coincidence, there’s evidence that there is more going on. Moreland and Beach (1992) found that people are more attracted to people who they are more familiar with. Yes! Merely seeing someone more (you don’t even have to be interacting with them) might make you more attracted to them. But this isn’t a bad thing, it doesn’t mean that you don’t truly like them, it’s simply your brain trying to protect you against the scary unknown. So, go ahead and try to impress them. But be careful, make sure to be yourself. Especially if your crush is a close friend or someone else who means a lot to you, it’s normal for your identity to shift to include a bit of them, but that overlap shouldn’t get too big. (more on that soon from Gracie!…)


Stage 2: The Question. ?

You ironed your Patagonia fleece this morning before putting it on (just kidding, you don’t own an iron) and you read your philosophers. You’re ready for anything. In your mind, you run through all the pleasantries and brief conversations you had with them, more importantly, you run through all the ways to say the words “do you have any plans Friday night?” Then, the perfect opportunity comes. Just as you’re exiting Sanders Theatre, you see them. You walk over and they say hi to you. You’re feeling good, it’s time. “Hey, are you doing anything Friday night?”

Well done you! You’re on your way to success. But you might wonder, did you do the right thing to ask this question? An important thing to remember is that asking someone out, even if it seems like a simple question to you, might put your crush in an uncomfortable position. In fact, Bohns and DeVincent (2019) found that both men and women underestimate how tough it is to be asked out by someone when the feeling isn’t mutual. Certainly, do ask your crush out and who knows, your feelings may be reciprocated, But be aware of the context. If you’re in a professional relationship with this person, consider any power dynamics or simply make sure that you’re creating an environment of respect. Also, give your crush a way out if they’re indeed not interested, you might be putting more pressure on them to say ‘yes’ than you intend.


Stage 3: The First Night. ?

That night you toss and turn in your bed. You’re excited, they agreed to have dinner with you on Friday!!! But you’re also nervous, what are you going to do? How are you going to get them to like you??? Exhausted from the day, you finally fall asleep. But the next morning, you open up your laptop and start searching….

What could you search for? Well, one thing that you might want to look at is the 36 Questions (Aron et al. 1997b). Sure, you can talk about anything and you don’t have to use all 36 questions, but don’t just talk about whether or not it’s Patagonia weather (it always is). Instead, be vulnerable. It’s hard to do so during the “first date,” but give it a shot. Take some time, brew some tea, and dim the lights. Sure, you don’t have to talk about your deepest and darkest secret, but ask meaningful questions, be human. Or maybe take some inspiration from a robot…


Stage 4: The Consistent “Thing.” ?

Kat calls this stage the “putting 2 Twin XL beds together” stage, and yeah, that pretty much sums it up perfectly. Are we friends, are we friends with benefits? Are we not friends, but have benefits? Are we official, are we exclusive, am I monogamous, do I want to be tied down, am I having a relationship crisis?!?!? Who freaking knows, but at this point, you know you like this person. You wouldn’t be spending all this time together if you didn’t. Who even cares if you don’t have all the details figured out yet (the day WILL come when you have to tell them you aren’t all that into Patagonia), because you’re in this state of euphoria. Nothing about this person is sending you running (away, not towards them, to be clear), and this is good news. But why do we keep going back, wanting more of this person, and each day, falling harder??

This might have something to do with Aron & Aron Self-Expansion Theory (1997a), whereby we have a tendency to want to become very close and intimate with someone for a few distinct reasons. We want to expand our self-concept, and this can be done by essentially taking on a bit of another person and using that to help define ourselves. Additionally, we want to expand our group circles, and by coming close with someone else, we expand our circle of people to include that person’s as well. This helps us feel like we belong, and it’s progress towards the next step, making it official. 


Stage 5: Making it Official. ?

[Midterm] seasons pass, the weather changes, the Patagonias remain, and the thing (that we don’t have labels for because it’s 2020 and labels are lame) that you’ve had with this person is going steady. But one thing is to remain: When is one of you going to pop THE question? 

Becoming official in a relationship seems (or feels) like a stamp of approval, an official seal, of belonging. And that’s what this class is all about right? Humans have a fundamental need for belonging (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), and becoming official with someone is like making a pact to provide each other with consistent love, nurturing, and enjoyment. Finally becoming official with another human who you have an intimate relationship with may not be the only belonging we need, but it’s definitely an exemplary feeling of belonging. Let me know if I’m out on too far of a limb here, but this also reminds me of the Pickett, Gardner, & Knowles (2004) article we read in Empathy week, which found that people who are craving belonging are more sensitive to different aspects of social cues such as vocal tone. Is this not us, on the edge of our seat, wondering when we will get our seal of approval??? Just a thought.  


Stage 6: The Married Couple. ?

Honeymoon phase is over. You’ve been through all those awkward pubescent-like stages of forming a romantic relationship and now here you are, married. Well, not actually, but you know what I mean. You’re off the market, you’re #committed. Things are normal! There’s less nerves, this person is now your person, and at this point, there’s probably not much that your boo doesn’t know about you (minus maybe the terrible Patagonia truth). Routines have developed, and who knows, maybe you’ve even dropped the “L” word. 

A friendly reminder though. Your S.O. still can’t read your mind (no matter how cool they are) and they still need help interpreting your thoughts and feelings. Not going to recommend couple’s therapy to an undergrad couple because that seems, idk, too soon? However, there are a few things we can learn from couples who went through Theory of Mind training (lovingly referred to as “ToM.”) In this week’s reading, we learned that conscious effort, focus, and attention on developing ToM abilities in couples was a success. Steady couples who underwent an 8 week program that focused on developing skills associated with cognitive and emotional empathy, as well as perspective taking, showed significant improvements in all these in comparison to the control. In addition, couples who went through the ToM training program were better able to ascribe and be sensitive to their partner’s mental states and emotions (Ramezani et al, 2020). While this may seem like a lot of work, it suggests that in an intimate and romantic relationship, empathy, perspective-taking, and mind perception play a big role in the viability of a meaningful romantic relationship.  


And you lived happily ever after. The end. Unfortunately, our childhood dreams of fairytale love and miracles don’t always turn out to be true. But you can get close. Having read through all six stages of a relationship, you’re ready to love and be loved. But there’s one more thing we missed. In fact, if there’s only one thing you take away from reading this, it’s to have gratitude. It’ll make you happier and it’ll grow your relationship (Gordon et al. 2012). ?


? – Gracie

? – Kat



Aron, A., & Aron, E. N. (1997a). Self-expansion motivation and including other in the self. In Handbook of personal relationships: Theory, research and interventions, 2nd ed (pp. 251–270). John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R. D., & Bator, R. J. (1997b). The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(4), 363–377.

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529.

Bohns, V. K., & DeVincent, L. A. (2019). Rejecting unwanted romantic advances is more difficult than suitors realize. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10(8), 1102-1110.

Christenson, P. G., de Haan-Rietdijk, S., Roberts, D. F., & ter Bogt, T. F. M. (2019). What has America been singing about? Trends in themes in the U.S. top-40 songs: 1960–2010. Psychology of Music, 47(2), 194–212.

Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2012). To have and to hold: Gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(2), 257–274.

Moreland, R. L., & Beach, S. R. (1992). Exposure effects in the classroom: The development of affinity among students. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 28(3), 255–276.

Pickett, C. L., Gardner, W. L., & Knowles, M. (2004). Getting a Cue: The Need to Belong and Enhanced Sensitivity to Social Cues. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(9), 1095–1107.

Ramezani, A., Ghamari, M., Jafari, A., & Aghdam, G. F. (2020). The Effectiveness of a ToM Training Program in Promoting Intimacy between Married Couples. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 1–18.

Tags: Uncategorized

The Online & In-Person Friendship Survival Guide

October 18th, 2020 · 6 Comments

As eager freshmen we ran around campus finding new friends, congregating in the dining hall, hanging out in tiny common rooms, avoiding proctors and hiding drinks – it was easy to meet people and form these friendships. But now, we click between class links and our friends are little boxes on Zoom, hundreds if not thousands of miles away. Despite being in a pandemic, those friendships still remain, and someday we’ll be face to face again. So, we’re going to tell you why friendships are important and how to maintain friendships both in ~real life~ as well as during COVID. Now, we’re going to tell you how to leverage the building blocks from Unit I to remind you of what’s important in forming friendships, as well as help you and those friendships survive Zoom U.

Imitation — James

A bunch of tiny boxes assorted on a screen doesn’t exactly foster the best environment in which to make friends, but welcome to Zoom U 2020. Although our current situation is certainly not ideal, there are still many ways in which we can form and maintain strong friendships.

Science suggests that proximity is a major factor in the formation of friendships (Nahemow, & Lawton 1975).  Proximity to others often leads to self-disclosure as a result of familiarity. Alas, our college experience has been ripped from us, and most of us are no longer in proximity to… well, basically anyone.  But, not to worry, the proximity of our faces on a screen may be just enough to get us through this.

The first tip in our Zoom U Survival Guide is to understand imitation and mimicry. When Jen says that imitation is a building block of social connection, she ain’t kidding!  Many studies have been done showing that mimicry leads to more pleasant interactions and the formation of social bonds (Stel & Vonk, 2010).  With the pandemic limiting our social interactions, it is more important than ever to make the most out of the limited facetime, no pun intended, that we have with each other.  Although it may seem silly, imitation can still occur over Zoom! Facial expressions are amplified on Zoom, so use this to your advantage! In order to create social bonds, maybe try to mimic facial expressions with break-out room members, just don’t be weird about it. It may seem uncomfortable or awkward but according to a bunch of smart people, it really does work.

It is important to remember that mimicry often occurs subconsciously.  If you’re like me you can remember many times where you have either mimicked another’s behavior or been mimicked in a natural way and this imitation led to conversation, and yes a ~social bond~.  So, stop worrying! Although it may seem as if we are completely isolated, humans tend to have a way of figuring out the whole friendship thing.  Zoom will not beat us. But, keep reading because there are many other building blocks of social connection that can assist us in forming friendships.

Mind Perception — Christi

Mind perception is super important to connection and communication in friendships. In Ledbetter, Griffin, and Sparks’ word-game study, interpersonal mindfulness and theory of mind were strong predictors of friendships (Ledbetter et al., 2007). While it may be more difficult to infer others’ thoughts and emotions through a screen, your friendships are not doomed on Zoom.

The challenge of perspective taking – seeing what your friends are experiencing at home from behind your screen is nearly impossible. More than ever try to ask questions and be interested in the answers! Get context about where your friends are, what they have been up to, co-ruminate, and get all the deets.

Body language is still important and can help emulate the proximity you would have during a real life conversation. Show your friends that you are interested in what they have to say, and are actively listening and contributing to the conversation and the relationship. Eye contact is another way to connect with people. A study also found that virtual eye contact is just as important as real life eye contact, triggering autonomic arousal and other facial/emotional reactions (Hietanen et al., 2020). These emotional reactions can be cues for what our friends are thinking about and how they feel.

Videos on Zoom make us hyper-self-aware, constantly looking at our little box to see what we look like and how others see us. While it may make you anxious, try to avoid it – checking yourself out divides our attention and distracts us from the conversation at hand. People who looked at themselves more during video calls were less certain when recalling information about their partners (Miller et al, 2017). So keep your video on, look at your friends (not yourself!), and be engaged!

But we get it, zoom fatigue is REAL. At the end of a day of screen time it is so hard to engage in more interactions. Plus, scheduling time with people is hard, and it is so easy to drift off and check your email or be on your phone when talking to friends. But remember, your friends are so important and social connection is really fulfilling (you won’t regret catching up with friends every now and then, promise!). Even if it’s just a quick 10 minutes, give your full attention to your friends like you would in real life.

Empathy — Gracie

Last but not least in the friendship survival guide is… empathy. It’s 2020, and being emotionally available and woke is cool. So, I want to propose a way to use empathy in friendships, in whatever way they are taking form (@Zoom).

I think that the construct of empathy is a goal – not a default. Empathy doesn’t seem to be a one-trick pony, that we either use or do not use in socialization. Instead, I think that empathy is what happens when you learn to ~healthily~ balance multiple aspects of interacting with another person and their emotions in a meaningful way (hence the reason I called it a “construct”). Empathy in excess can lead to us constantly carrying someone else’s emotional baggage, which is no bueno for mental health. But without empathy, we might be unresponsive to others’ feelings, which can make us come off as cold, lame, or like we don’t care.

So somewhere in the middle of this mess is a great ratio of: acknowledging someone’s emotions (good or bad), recognizing that sometimes it isn’t your responsibility to help rectify someone’s emotions, all the while, remembering that they aren’t your emotions, and someone else’s problems don’t automatically become yours. This is what empathy is to me. So when you’re looking to make a friend, remember the difference between being emotionally “available” and emotionally “vulnerable.”

“Sure Gracie, but that’s easier said than done.”

I know. But in my experience with close relationships, the WRONG kind of empathy can act as a vicious cycle. A friend vents to you, you feel bad for them, you take on that friend’s emotions, and now you’re feeling down. And when you’re feeling down, you can’t offer the same healing powers to your friend that you might have been able to, had you been a little more emotionally resilient. Suddenly you can’t be the distraction or the good laugh, the cuddler or the “show them a good time”-er (LMK if you figured out how to cuddle via Zoom). A finding in this week’s paper might show evidence of this – when assessing what aspects of interpersonal mindfulness could act as mediators for influencing friendship quality, perspective-taking was a significant explanatory mediator, but empathy (defined as literally taking on one’s emotions) was not (Pratscher et al, 2018). This might mean that a friendship does well  with empathy in moderation. Too much, and you’re a vibe killer, always harshing the mellow. Too little, and you’re a jerk whose stuck in the early 2000s, when not caring was cool.


While we might have thrown a lot of stuff at you, if you take one thing from this post, it’s this: while consciously thinking about skills like imitation, mind perception, or empathy might certainly help you be engaged in socialization, when you’re making friends, it’s also important to follow your heart (so much cheese I know I’m SORRY – Gracie). But seriously, you’ll have that gut feeling when a new relationship is going well, is healthy, and can become really meaningful (if it isn’t already). And the right people will bring the best out of you. Friendship is an organic process, and life has a funny way of bringing people together. So don’t give up on the whole online interactions thing yet!



James, Christi, & Gracie




Hietanen, JO, Peltola, MJ, Hietanen, JK. Psychophysiological responses to eye contact in a live interaction and in video call. Psychophysiology. 2020; 57:e13587.


Ledbetter, A.M., Griffin, E. and Sparks, G.G. (2007), Forecasting “friends forever”: A longitudinal investigation of sustained closeness between best friends. Personal Relationships, 14: 343-350. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2007.00158.x


Matthew K. Miller, Regan L. Mandryk, Max V. Birk, Ansgar E. Depping, and Tushita Patel. 2017. Through the Looking Glass: The Effects of Feedback on Self-Awareness and Conversational Behaviour during Video Chat. In Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’17). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 5271–5283. DOI:


Nahemow, L., & Lawton, M. P. (1975). Similarity and propinquity in friendship formation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32(2), 205–213.


Pratscher, S. D., Rose, A. J., Markovitz, L., & Bettencourt (2018). Interpersonal mindfulness: Investigating mindfulness in interpersonal interactions, co-rumination, and friendship quality. Mindfulness, 9(4), 1206-1215.


Stel, M., & Vonk, R. (2010). Mimicry in social interaction: Benefits for mimickers, mimickees, and their interaction. British Journal of Psychology, 101(2), 311-323.

Tags: Uncategorized

The circles we form

October 17th, 2020 · 3 Comments

Friends—you have probably heard of this. It is one of the best American television sitcoms that has millions of fans. As the name of the show represents, the characters always end up getting along with each other and stay as each other’s best friend no matter what happens.

Then, the question is, how do these characters maintain their friendship even after having the biggest conflict? The answer might be due to the need to belong, which induces us to seek friendship. We try to maintain friendship out of the desire to form interpersonal relationships and have someone who could emotionally support us.

Let’s dig deeper into this concept of friendship and how it is formed.


Who are the lucky 5 out of 1500? [Suyeon]

Close your eyes and try to list all the people in your life who you care about. Your families or best friend might pop up first, then your roommates, classmates, p-set buddies, or even people who you (used to—back in old days when the pandemic only existed in fantasy) run into in a dining hall. Then the question is, how many people would come visit you when you are distressed?

According to Dunbar (2014), multiple layers exist within an individual’s social circle. Humans could put 1,500 people—who we normally consider as acquaintances—in our outermost layer. I would put a person who sits far from me in the lecture hall in the science center but whose face is familiar in my outermost layer. There is another layer that has a capacity of 150 people who we had about a total of 9 minutes of pretty meaningless interaction. My friend’s friend who I met during the party and added me on Facebook without any further interaction may belong to this layer. The last layer involves only 5 people; these people would be the ones who would be next to you when you need them and are always on your side no matter what.

Numbers are just numbers, but the main point of Dunbar (2014) is that there are constraints in terms of the number of people you could include in your social network. This does not matter whether you are an extrovert or introvert; we are humans with the limited brain size, which also limits the number of friends and acquaintances according to the social brain hypothesis. The hypothesis explains the positive correlation between the size of neocortex and the capacity of personal social network, which is why we have a bigger social circle than other species.

So far, I talked about how there are only few people we could put in our close social circle. Then, how do we decide whom to put in our close circle? Dunbar (2014) explains the amount of endorphin activation is a crucial ingredient for feeling closeness. Touching (including hugs, high fives, holding hands etc.), laughing, and music trigger your endorphin to be activated. As the amount of time of endorphin activation gets longer, the closer we feel towards the other individual who interacted with you when your endorphin was activated. In other words, there is a higher chance that you would feel close to the person who you spend more time touching, laughing, or listening to music together.

I have a best friend who I can disclose anything about myself and is always next to me when I am distressed. However, I cannot pinpoint a single date when I decided to label her as my best friend. It happened naturally; the more we spent time together laughing and dancing crazy to our favorite music, we found ourselves to be each other’s best friend although she was once one of 1,500 people in my outermost layer.

Strong vs weak: What’s the deal with our social circle [Hannah]

As we all know human beings have this need to belong and to fill this need, we form social connections with others. Studies have shown that having that inner circle of strong connections is extremely important for our well-being and our need to belong (Baumeister and Leary, 1995). This makes sense – we need best friends to gossip, cry and laugh with. We need someone to lean on when things get tough, and we need people to have our backs. But there are other circles in our social lives that I think most of us gloss over. These are the 2 outer layers in our social circles. These connections are considered weak ties or acquaintances. Sandstrom and Dunn (2014) specifically looked at the power and benefits of these weaker ties. This paper really brings to light how much we overlook our interactions with acquaintances. An interesting result of their study showed that if an individual has a lot of weak tie connections in a day the number of strong tie connections does not really matter. We still see a positive effect on our health and well-being as well as feelings of belonging.
We need that outer circle of acquaintances. These weaker ties can form a large part of our social lives as they create mini networks of work friends, gym friends, coffee shop regulars etc. Each network offers a different support system and benefits. These networks encourage empathy, broaden our views, and connections that could stream across a much larger scale (We’ve all seen the effects of social networking at events – some may lead to internships and jobs)(Volpe, 2019). These weak ties make you feel connected and valued. I remember back when we were in a hard lockdown – we had restricted hours to go outside and exercise. During these hours there were always people out, running, walking, and cycling and on weekends one of the local coffee shops was open for takeaways. The sense of community was amazing, and you often got to see many of the familiar faces and would stop for a brief chat. I can’t count how many times my family and I bumped into people who we haven’t seen in years and we got to catch up.
I think this is a pretty cool thing to know especially now during these craazzyy times. Social distancing and isolated seem to be common words all over the media and in conversations. A lot of people have felt extremely isolated – being stuck in one place with the same people for months. But just a simple change like seeing a different person can give you a new perspective on life and a burst of energy. So next time you leave the house (obvs – still be careful and psychically distance and all that) but stop for a few minutes and “smell the roses.” Try a little harder to say hello to the familiar face in the coffee shop or have a conversation with the uber driver. I think people are craving that social connection so they would appreciate and benefit from a short interaction with a friendly face just as much as you would.
Forming and exploiting these weak ties might be a bit daunting – we will face the risk of being rejected. What if they don’t reply? Or don’t understand me because of the mask covering my face? What if we have nothing in common? How do you just start a conversation with a random person? Well first off, take a breath and keep it simple. A nice compliment about someone’s shoes or mask might be a nice start. You could also try talking to a familiar face first – these are the people you’ve seen a few times and maybe even giving the occasional head nod or wave. Another thing is to make the conversations meaningful – be mindful of the person, pay attention to what they say, don’t judge them, take an interest in what they say and try and find common ground (Volpe, 2019).
This week’s practicum highlighted for me how difficult it is to maintain some of my strong connections because we aren’t able to see our friends as frequently or have as many shared interests or experiences. Some of us don’t even have the same weather conditions in common – we can’t get together and rage about how hot it is or how miserable it is outside. But it did highlight how we should take advantage of our weaker ties in our social circles. That way we can still reap the benefits of these ties on our health and other aspects while fulfilling our need to belong. And like Suyeon said, our current best friends were once our acquaintances so let’s getting chatting 😀


A very important aspect in our lives is our social connections. The way we form our social circles allow for 3 different layers; best friends, friends, and acquaintances. These all have their own benefits on our health, need to belong and many other aspects of our lives. During COVID people have felt very disconnected from each other and the world. While we have facetime, texting and social media we are able to keep up some of our relationships. But it is still very difficult and just isn’t the same. Acquaintances, the outer level of our social circles, can have a huge effect on us right now and could be the solution for the days we aren’t able to connect with our close friends.
So … We challenge you to talk to the familiar face in the crowd – make a new acquaintance, reflect on how it makes you feel and maybe it can turn into a close friendship. And… if you happen to face rejection (because some people are not always so cool :/) just remember you always have a friend is us


Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529.
Dunbar, R. I. M. (2014). The Social Brain: Psychological Underpinnings and Implications for the Structure of Organizations. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(2), 109–114.
Sandstrom, G. M., & Dunn, E. W. (2014). Social Interactions and Well-Being: The Surprising Power of Weak Ties. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(7), 910–922.
Volpe, A. (2019, May 6). Why You Need a Network of Low-Stakes, Casual Friendships (Published 2019). The New York Times.

Tags: Uncategorized

F • R • I • E • N • D • S (& acquaintances)

October 17th, 2020 · 4 Comments

Friends (Grace)


We’ve already learned that one of our most basic needs as humans is to feel like we belong – in a place, with people, or just in life (Pickett, Gardner, & Knowles, 2004). Feeling like we belong creates a sense of comfort and safety; it gives our lives meaning and reaffirms, in many cases, our self-worth. Familial relationships can definitely help satisfy this need to belong – I mean, who doesn’t feel at home when surrounded by your family as you’re about to devour your Thanksgiving feast? But, friendships can actually give you a greater sense of belonging than familial relationships (Chopik, 2017). Friend relationships have actually been found to predict greater health and happiness in later adulthood than any other interpersonal relationship (Chopik, 2017). When examining the effect of close relationships on health and happiness later in life, Chopik (2017) found that friendships, in particular, foster better health, wellness, and happiness outcomes. And, he found that stress from friendships was the most significant factor in predicting chronic illness over time (Chopik, 2017). So long story short – friend relationships are not just necessary to fill our need to belong, they’re important for our long-term health and happiness. 


Why are friendships so special? As Jem Finch so eloquently put it in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, “You can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family” (p. 300). Though only a 10-year-old, Jem recognized a pretty poignant fact of life: Friend relationships are unique because you’re not forced into them like you are with your family. And, while you choose who you become friends with, you also choose who you stay friends with (Beck, 2015). 


Sooo, if friends are so important to us, how do we find them and how do we keep them? 


Making friends comes naturally to us. We make friends by sharing similar interests, values, experiences and close proximity, and by spending time together, among other factors. From personal experience, I’ve found that sharing a difficult experience with another person can really bring you together. Think of that friend you made while trying to survive EC10. You probably met in office hours after your first midterm (which you both failed miserably) and decided that in order to merely pass the class, you had to religiously attend office hours in order to get answers to p-sets and maybe – just maybe – grasp a slight understanding of basic economics. After the second office hours, you notice each other, exchange numbers, and plan to meet up outside of class to study and get each other through the class. BOOM – you’re now friends. You’ve found someone that makes you feel comfortable in the class; you’ve found someone with whom you feel you belong.


Now that you’ve made your new friend, how do you keep her? Maintaining friendships is the harder of the two – it requires a lot more effort. It requires that you expand on what initially brought you together and also engage in reciprocity, equity, and cognitive capacity. It requires an emotional investment. The will to share your cognitive capacity with someone can really test a friendship, especially in a virtual setting. The pandemic has forced us to evaluate what relationships we really want to keep. Without the ease of seeing our friends daily and knowing what they’re up to all the time, it’s difficult to carry on conversations without them feeling stilted or simply nostalgic for the past. It can also be hard if you feel like you’re the only one putting in the effort. Though it may be easy to blame the pandemic for making it difficult to maintain these friendships, you could see it as an opportunity to evaluate which friendships are most important to you because those that you’re making an effort to maintain are the ones that you’re going to keep. 


Going back to that friend from EC10 – the odds of you keeping her as a friend are low if you don’t invest in each other’s lives outside of class. Though you may have bonded from seeing each other frequently and sharing in a similar, utterly horrible, experience, your friendship will not last the length of time if you don’t take the cognitive capacity to invest yourself emotionally. Losing a friend like that is not something to cry over, though! That friend will just be a weak tie that simply adds value to your day when you occasionally see her, and, we all know that the more weak-tie interactions we have, the happier we’ll be (Sandstrom & Dunn, 2014)! 


Acquaintances (Andre)


An essential interim step on the road to a life full of friendships is amassing a network of acquaintances. While casual, “weak ties” might not feel that meaningful in the moment, they add up to something pretty big. Random conversations and occasional run-ins remind us that we’re worthy of attention and can relish the experiences of all types of people. Having more weak-tie, acquaintance-type interactions makes us feel better, more belonging in our community, and overall more satisfied with life (Sandstrom & Dunn, 2014). That’s quite a haul for small talk at the coffee shop. 


Acquaintances broaden our world view and build empathy by exposing us to more and more personal stories (Volpe, 2019). We only have the time and capacity to deeply know so many people, but we can learn a ton by opening ourselves to those people we might only ever kind of know. They could be a link to a new job, hobby, or way of seeing the world. 


Other research even suggests that being ignored by those who barely know us can hurt more than being ignored by more familiar people (Snapp & Leary, 2001). One idea that comes to mind for why that could be is that unfamiliar people who choose to ignore us have made the quick judgment that we’re not worthy of interaction or we must be doing something wrong or some essential part of our being is just off for them. We’re left to wonder and feel micro-rejected by that weak-tie. We can fend off those feelings if we all keep up on our casual friendships. 


Ultimately, casual friendships can shape our lives in many ways that rival the more serious friendships that we pour energy into maintaining. They can blossom into those very friendships, and teach us a lot along the way regardless. 



Beck, J. (2015). How friendships change in adulthood. The Atlantic.  

Chopik, W. J. (2017). Associations among relational values, support, health, and well-being across the

adult lifespan. Personal Relationships, 24(2), 408-422.

Lee, H. (2010). To kill a mockingbird. New York: Grand Central Publishing.

Pickett, C. L., Gardner, W. L., & Knowles, M. (2004). Getting a cue: The need to belong and enhanced

sensitivity to social cues. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 1095-1107.

Running Hug GIF – Running Hug Embrace – Discover & Share GIFs. (2020). Retrieved 16

October 2020, from

Sandstrom, G. M., & Dunn, E. W. (2014). Social interactions and well-being: The surprising

power of weak ties. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(7), 910-922.

Snapp, C. M., & Leary, M. R. (2001). Hurt feelings among new acquaintances: Moderating effects of interpersonal familiarity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 18(3), 315-326.

Swift, Taylor. (2009, June 16). Taylor Swift – You belong with me [Video file]. Retrieved from

Volpe, A. (2019, May 07). Why You Need a Network of Low-Stakes, Casual Friendships. Retrieved October 16, 2020


Tags: Uncategorized

Don’t Let the Middle School Flashbacks Get You Down

October 10th, 2020 · 15 Comments

Picture this. You’re 13 years old, walking with a big group of friends down the street after school. Yes, YOU are part of that gaggle of kids taking up the whole sidewalk, babbling and guffawing, blind to everyone but each other. From an outsider’s perspective, you’re just part of an obnoxious group of kids. But your thoughts are racing. You’re not super close with these people, though you’d like to be. You’re listening intently to the comments flying around the group, trying to think of something witty that will send everyone howling with laughter. But it’s tough because you just so happen to be the straggler at the back of the group. You’re flanking the others, on the outskirts of the jumble of bodies and backpacks, nearly tripping on the heels of the kid in front of you as you lean your neck forward, trying to insert yourself into the ranks with little success. Tragic, we know. 

So now let’s check back in. How are you feeling after imagining that? How would you feel in that situation? Probably not so great. This is the dreadful feeling of social exclusion; everyone knows it and has felt it in some capacity. It’s that feeling when you get overlooked by others or just outright rejected, maybe you were the last kid chosen for dodgeball teams, maybe you asked someone out and they laughed, saying “With YOU??? Ew, no, never.” (we hope this has never actually happened). So how does rejection affect us anyway, and why? Why might our reactions to rejection differ? What can we do about that awful feeling rejection brings? Let’s talk about it.  

Affiliation, Withdrawal…Both? — Julie 

First of all, I think most of us can agree that rejection just downright sucks. No matter how it manifests itself, whether it’s just a little sting (like no one waiting for you as you’re tying your shoe) or a more substantial blow (like not getting into the school of your dreams), it still affects you. I mean think about it, your first reaction to rejection isn’t usually to rejoice, right? Damn, try saying that 5 times fast. 

Now, of course, everything in life varies from person to person and from situation to situation. Sometimes, a little sting feels like a colossal blow, and sometimes that colossal blow just blows right over your head and you stay vibing. So our reaction to rejection at any given moment often ~depends~. And science agrees. 

Sometimes you might be motivated by rejection to build relationships with others. Although this might sound like trying to patch up the wound with what caused it in the first place, we actually display some pretty helpful behaviors to make this endeavor easier. For example, feeling socially excluded can lead to enhanced memory of social information (Gardner, Picket, & Brewer, 2000). Researchers induced feelings of social exclusion in participants, then had them read a diary. After completing some unrelated tasks, participants were asked to recall details from the diary. Those that felt socially excluded remembered more events from the diary that were related to social events than did those who felt socially secure. Crazy.

But this makes sense because paying attention to and remembering social cues and information can help you build connections with others. Isn’t it rather nice when someone remembers something you told them last week and asks you about it? It makes you feel like they genuinely care about you, which is the basis for any kind of relationship. Other studies have found that people who feel socially excluded can even tell if a smile is real (a Duchenne smile, smiling with the eyes) or fake, and they (obviously) prefer the real smile (Bernstein et al., 2008). In essence, you basically become hyper-aware of signals around you telling you who might want to connect, and the evidence for this goes on and on. It seems like we unknowingly (until now) have these built-in tools to help us remedy rejection and stay socially secure. 

On the other hand, sometimes rejection might cause you to slip back into your shell, withdrawing from the world. You might just feel a sense of emotional numbness (Baumeister et al., 2007). You might even lose concern for others. People that were told they would end up all alone in life engaged in fewer acts of charity and to a lower degree, like donating less to student funds or even picking up fewer dropped pencils than the control group (Twenge et al., 2007). This withdrawal reaction serves to lessen the pain of the experience and act as buffers against further emotionally painful events. It’s like putting a shield over your emotions by closing the shutters and not letting anything in or out. 

These two conflicting responses don’t each have to be all or nothing though..they’re not action potentials;). It’s more likely that for most people, they play in tandem in varying doses. In other words, we can display flexible responses to rejection based on context, sometimes trying to affiliate with others if that seems like a viable option, and if not, then withdrawing to avoid further emotional pain (Powers & Heatherton, 2012). I feel as though this is almost like an immune system for our social needs, and it kicks in with multiple plans of action to treat rejection. 

I can definitely see this context-dependent response in myself. If I’m feeling secure in my other social relationships and in my abilities, rejection won’t hit me as hard, and I’ll maybe have a quick moment where I’m like oof that’s tough, but it be like that sometimes. And I usually try to joke about it with friends to remind myself that, whatever happened, it’s probably not that deep. Obviously, if it’s one of those colossal blows we were talking about earlier, or if rejection after rejection after rejection is being hurled at me, things become a bit tougher. That’s when it’s harder to be all nonchalant and positive. Plus, I tend to overthink this stuff during ungodly hours of the night when I’m trying to sleep, so overall it’s just a good time. I might first respond by withdrawing and allowing myself to wallow for a bit in sad girl hours because sometimes a passionate cry is all you need. But then, I’ll reach out to friends to either talk about it or just move on from it, and voila all becomes well again eventually. And in the end, most things work out. The hard times teach you lessons that make you wiser, kinder, and stronger. And sometimes they make for good stories, so when rejection knocks on your door, chin up my friend, you were born to handle this, and Andre can tell you why.

How it all started — Andre

Sometimes, it can be difficult to understand why we even have such strong reactions to social situations in the first place. Even when we know we can handle a rejection, it still often stings a lot. Even after spending tons of time cultivating our confidence we still find ourselves being super self-conscious. Why are we like this? 

Evolutionary psychology helps answer the question. In the state of nature, being alone or cast out from your group was among the biggest threats to your survival and reproduction (the foremost stuff we’re really “wired” for). If you weren’t around others, then you couldn’t share resources or labor and your chances of passing on your genes would dwindle. Human psychology and neurobiology adapted to make us want to be around others. And if we weren’t, our minds would sound all types of alarms telling ourselves to fix the situation. 

So if you feel caught up in your fear of rejection, give yourself a break. We’re wired to feel like our lives and future generations depend on it. 

On a similar note, many of us find it difficult not to dwell on negative experiences like rejection. We could have tons of stuff going for ourselves and positive news to be grateful for and yet we’re still drawn back to the stuff that didn’t go right. We ruminate over an awkward encounter, endlessly talk over a failed relationship, or micro-analyze our whole existence. While this tendency to seemingly prioritize the negative over the positive needs to be checked with more healthy habits, it’s quite natural. Threat detection or threat hypervigilance was an important trait when humans were evolving just like rejection sensitivity. Our failures or potential failures were bigger threats to our survival and reproduction than our successes so of course we should pay them more attention. Essentially, we develop to dwell on the negative or things we perceive as threats (Boyer & Bergstrom, 2011). We can correct for that with positive affirmations and gratitude when our negativity becomes too much, but ultimately it’s pretty useful for understanding, remembering and addressing our problems. 

So…What now? — Rachel

So if you’re like me, you’ve read all this about threat and rejection and exclusion, and honestly, you’re feeling pretty down. “What gives??” you may ask. “Isn’t there anything we can do about it??” you may plead to anyone who will listen. Good news! Yes, social rejection is a Thing, and as we’ve said, we really can’t help but react to it (shoutout to Andre, we’ve quite literally evolved to react to it!). But that doesn’t mean we just have to sit back and wait for the social blows to inevitably hit. It also doesn’t mean hiding away in your dorm room and avoiding all social situations out of fear of them going horribly wrong. So, what can we actually do about it? That’s where a fun thing called “self-regulation” comes into play. 

Self-regulation is basically the process of intentionally controlling and monitoring your inner thoughts and emotions, as well as your outer behaviors and impulses (Reed et al., 2020). Even if you didn’t know it, you’re probably already a self-regulating pro. Congrats! Remember mind perception week? When you purposely tried to shift between “imagine other” and “imagine self” in perspective taking, that was a form of self-regulation! Self-regulating is like a handy-dandy Swiss Army Knife on the imaginary tool belt of psychological processes. It’s helpful in all kinds of scenarios, from perspective-taking (like the tasks we’ve already tried) to promoting positive goals to seek pleasure or avoid pain (Higgins, 1997). For threat detection and rejection sensitivity especially, self-regulation can be really helpful in changing the way we think about potentially damaging social situations on a daily basis (Meehan et al., 2019). 

While there are likely many, many ways we each engage in self-regulatory behavior on an individual level (especially considering the wide range of rejection sensitivity we each possess even in this class alone), we’ve chosen two especially helpful behaviors for you to ponder as we figure out what the heck to do about all this rejection. First, one way of using self-regulation to help with rejection sensitivity is through intentional directing of your attention (Hanif et al., 2012). As we’ve already learned from the Gardner article, experiences of social exclusion can greatly impact what kind of social information you take in (Gardner, Picket, & Brewer, 2000). The same is true for attention – rather than keeping this tunnel vision of looking for rejection, self-regulation can involve directing your attentional focus towards a wider view of actually understanding the context of your situation, your own behavior, and the behavior of others. In doing so, you can actually start to look beyond your own rejection sensitivity towards what Hanif et al. call “goal-related representations,” or the things that are relevant to seeking your own positive goals (Hanif et al., 2012). 

This expansion in attention can especially be helpful with that literally never ending cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy in rejection (Downey et al., 1998). By taking the time to step back, reflect, and expand your attention, you can find yourself realizing that hey, maybe those kids you’re walking with aren’t actually trying to reject you when you’re the one stuck at the back of the pack. Maybe the sidewalk is just not wide enough, simple as that. 

Another way of using self-regulation in the face of those 13 year old kids from the intro (*cue the terrifying middle school flashbacks*) goes hand in hand with directing attention: delayed gratification (Ayduk et al., 2000). Remember the marshmallow experiment, the one you’ve probably seen in every psych class ever (Mishel, 2014)? Surprise, it’s relevant here too! As we’ve already discussed, our ~general long-term goal as humans~ is to survive, and we’ve adapted to do that by being around others. By intentionally focusing on that pleasurable, long-term goal over more immediate impulsive reactions (aka, delayed gratification) through self-regulation, you can help keep all those negative emotions, gut reactions, and passive-aggressive texts to seemingly threatening social situations at bay (Ayduk et al., 2000). And when you don’t have to put as much effort into processing these short-term responses, it’s much easier to direct your attention towards other explanations in the situation and seek out solutions for keeping that long-term goal of #good social connections going. 

Like Julie said, these situations of social rejection can be really, really tough. Whether big or small, these situations can hurt a LOT, and our reactions to it can vary and be confusing in themselves. But, Andre showed you that you were literally born to handle these things! So don’t fret (for too long at least). Self-regulation, as Rachel demonstrated, takes some time and effort, but by putting that ~mental muscle~ to work you really can help shape your reactions in a healthy way. So just know that you got this!! We’re rooting for you always.



Ayduk, O., Mendoza-Denton, R., Mischel, W., Downey, G., Peake, P. K., & Rodriguez, M. (2000). Regulating the interpersonal self: strategic self-regulation for coping with rejection sensitivity. Journal of personality and social psychology, 79(5), 776–792. 

Baumeister, R. F., Brewer, L. E., Tice, D. M., and Twenge, J. M. (2007). Thwarting the need to belong: understanding the interpersonal and inner effects of social exclusion. Soc. Pers. Psychol. Compass 1, 506–520.

Bernstein, M. J., Young, S. G., Brown, C. M., Sacco, D. F., and Claypool, H. M. (2008). Adaptive responses to social exclusion: social rejection improves detection of real and fake smiles. Psychol. Sci. 19, 981–983. 

Boyer, P., & Bergstrom, B. (2011). Threat-detection in child development: An evolutionary perspective. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 35(4), 1034-1041.

Clarkson, K. (2011). Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You) Official Audio. [Video]. YouTube.

Downey, G., Freitas, A. L., Michaelis, B., & Khouri, H. (1998). The self-fulfilling prophecy in close relationships: Rejection sensitivity and rejection by romantic partners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(2), 545–560. 

Gardner, W. L., Pickett, C. L., and Brewer, M. B. (2000). Social exclusion and selective memory: how the need to belong affects memory for social information. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 26, 486–496.

Higgins E. T. (1997). Beyond pleasure and pain. The American psychologist, 52(12), 1280–1300.

“I Can Fix That GIF”. (2020). Holes. [GIF]. Giphy. 

Literary Devices. Sarcasm – Definition and Examples of Sarcasm. (2017). Literary Devices.

Meehan, K.B., Cain, N.M., Roche, M.J. et al. (2019). Rejection Sensitivity and Self-Regulation of Daily Interpersonal Events. J Contemp Psychother 49, 223–233. 

Mischel, W. (2014). The marshmallow test: mastering self-control. First edition. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Powers, K. E., Heatherton, T. F. (2012). Characterizing socially avoidant and affiliative responses to social exclusion. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience. 6,46.

Reed, R. G., Combs, H. L., & Segerstrom, S. C. (2020). The Structure of Self-Regulation and Its Psychological and Physical Health Correlates in Older Adults. Collabra: Psychology, 6(1), 23. 

Saturday Night Live. (2020). Chris Redd Snl. [GIF]. Giphy.

Twenge, J. M., Baumeister, R. F., DeWall, C. N., Ciarocco, N. J., and Bartels, J. M. (2007). Social exclusion decreases prosocial behavior. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 92. 56–66.

Tags: Uncategorized

Altruism that Matters

October 3rd, 2020 · 9 Comments

How can a person form meaningful relationships without empathy? In the lecturette, we learn that empathy causes prosocial behaviors such as compassion, cooperation, trust, support, and altruism due to its underlying mechanism of affiliating with others (Batson, 1991; de Waal, 2008). Empathy inspires so many behaviors critical to meaningful relationships. Humans thrive off of forming and maintaining relationships, and empathy plays a huge role in facilitating these processes (Pickett et al., 2004). Without empathy, the world would be a much colder place. How empathy intertwines with altruism, particularly sparks my interest.

Altruism is such a tricky subject. A lot of people think that they are being altruistic when they make a “selfless” decision, but are they really being truly altruistic? In terms of empathy-driven altruism, does it inherently include “selfish” aspects?

Well, in a world of personal relationships and everyday encounters, I don’t believe that pure altruism exists. There is always an underlying benefit – big or small – for the person performing the altruistic act despite what one’s motivation for the act is. de Waal (2008) explains that empathy-driven altruism benefits the actor by giving him/her “an emotional stake in the recipient’s well-being” (pg. 281). No matter what empathy-driven altruistic act you are performing, you are being offered an emotional stake, which is a benefit in and of itself. The opportunity to have an emotional stake in someone’s well-being is a privilege that we as humans gain satisfaction from, as it allows us to richen our relationship with another person. And, as we know, it is important for humans to form and maintain relationships (Pickett et al., 2004). 

I like to think of myself as someone whose empathy-driven altruism is pure. However, when I pause for a moment, I realize that when I help a friend out, send someone a care package, or comfort a friend, I tend to feel happier after the act. No, I don’t only engage in these behaviors expecting something in return or only because I will feel happier afterward. But, when all is said and done, my action makes me feel good and sometimes takes a weight off of my shoulder. Even though I didn’t go into the act with the intention of helping myself, I feel satisfied and happier internally. Our empathy towards a person carries us to follow through with a task regardless of what we do or do not gain. But, at the end of the day, we’re gaining a feeling of internal happiness; we’re feeling good about ourselves. This side effect doesn’t take away from the original intention of my altruistic act, but it suggests that altruism may not be strictly pure.

The bottom line is that “it is futile to try to extract the self from the process” of altruism (de Waal, 2008, pg. 292). It is too hard to take yourself out of the equation, but that’s okay. Although helping another person generally makes you feel good, it doesn’t mean that you’re doing it out of selfishness. Essentially, you don’t know exactly how something will make you feel until you do it. So, if that means you perform an empathy-driven altruistic act and end up feeling amazing because of it, it doesn’t make it morally wrong.

Whether you think altruism can be pure or it inherently always includes a selfish motive, we all need to continue to perform altruistic behaviors. The gain that you receive from an altruistic act doesn’t outweigh the good deed that you did for another. Small acts of empathy-driven altruism make the world a warmer, happier place.

Despite our discussion on the impossibility of pure altruism, there may be some cases for when altruism is driven more by selflessness, and that is in activism. De Waal describes empathy-driven altruism as one that “boil[s] down to helping oneself” because we are using “emotional identification” to essentially put ourselves in the shoes of the person we’re helping, feeling what they’re feeling, and thus alleviating our own discomfort when we help them (292). For example, if I decide to volunteer at a soup kitchen, my encounter with a hungry citizen might make me feel upset or uncomfortable as I imagine what it must be like to be hungry and homeless. But, as I start to serve this person food and talk to them, I may feel satisfied and happier because I had played a role in making their day a bit better. Thus, I’ve not only alleviated a bit of their hardship for that day, but I’ve also alleviated my own discomfort that stemmed from empathizing with their struggle. As de Waal notes, this emotional stake that I have in their well-being is the privilege that makes altruism seem a more selfish desire than a selfless one. So, when does a good deed like this go beyond our connectedness with an individual and towards a purely selfless goal? 

I define true activism as commitment to a cause, a movement, or the organization of people towards a common goal. Activism involves a continuous understanding of the local and underlying causes of a social issue and consequent devotion to organizing people and resources around the cause. Let’s revisit the example of volunteering at a soup kitchen. What if after I’ve volunteered at this soup kitchen, I decided to dedicate everyday to expanding awareness around homelessness, organizing the logistical work at this soup kitchen, and dedicating my life’s work to eradicating the housing crisis happening in America. My motivation goes beyond serving the few people I worked with at the soup kitchen and more towards fighting a system that is broken. One piece of evidence that may account for this shift from selfish to selfless motivations is a change in attitude from the results of our work. When we engage in public service, we may feel satisfied because we see immediate results: the person we are helping is happier and thus we are happier. But, with activism, as many activists may relate to, the work is exhausting, because we realize that expansive change–the change that would remedy a broken system–is nowhere near. In fact, this work can often lead people to despair, sharing the pain and hopelessness that oppressed and marginalized communities feel as our country seems to constantly ignore our cries for justice, progress, and equity. 

Yet, on the flip side, some may say this still has selfish motivations, because we are still working from a place of empathy for our community or even for the hungry citizen who inspired us in the first place. Thus, our work in organizing and advocating for our community is still giving us a sense of purpose that is benefiting our own self-actualization. So, can altruism ever, truly, not benefit ourselves? Probably not. But, I do think that there are levels of altruism and a spectrum of selfish and selfless motivation when we engage in it. Making a donation or sharing a post on Instagram, to me, is less altruistic than organizing a protest, fundraising for mutual aid funds, or even just showing up to protests everyday. Yes, activism is tiring and it feels like it won’t reap results because progress in our country is slow, bureaucratic, and broken. But, when we choose to keep fighting, losing, and fighting again, I believe that we’re taking steps towards altruism that actually matters. 


By Camerin Rawson & Anna Pacheco


Batson CD. 1991. The Altruism Question: Toward a Social-Psychological Answer. Hillsdale, NJ:Erlbaum.

de Waal, F. B. M. (2008). Putting the Altruism Back into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 279–300.

GIPHY. (n.d.). Be Kind Animation GIF by Red & Howling – Find & Share on GIPHY. Retrieved October 2, 2020, from LcWIEhR6z6. 

Pickett, C. L., Gardner, W. L., & Knowles, M. (2004). Getting a Cue: The Need to Belong and Enhanced Sensitivity to Social Cues. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(9), 1095–1107.

Tags: Uncategorized

The (empa)TEA on Empathy

October 2nd, 2020 · 8 Comments

When you were younger, did you ever slip your feet into shoes that weren’t yours? Maybe you tramped around the house in a parent’s slippers that dwarfed your own, wondering what it would be like to have such big feet. Or maybe you’ve squeezed your toes into someone’s miniscule flip flops, exclaiming to their owner, “Awww you have such small feet!” as you shuffle across the floor, heels hanging out in all their glory. Maybe you did this yesterday, we won’t judge (I might– Gaby). But even if not, we’re willing to bet that you’ve recently put yourself in someone else’s shoes, ~metaphorically~. This is what we call empathy. Empathy involves adopting and feeling the experiences and emotions of another person as your own. Putting yourself in their shoes, you see life from their perspective, and in doing so, you’re able to more easily create new social bonds and strengthen old ones because you’re vibing on the same wavelength. Sounds pretty easy, right? Well, for us, yes. In fact, it’s practically second nature. But empathy is an incredibly complex capacity which most earthly creatures don’t have, and even the cases of empathy that have been recorded in non-human animals are limited in both frequency and extent. So… what’s so special about empathy in humans and what does it do for us? Who do we show empathy to, and is it easier or harder to do depending on the situation? Buckle up. We’re going to spill the (empa)TEA on empathy.

– • – • – • –

What’s the big idea with empathy in humans? How is it helpful to us? -Gaby

-AYOO, leave your human exceptionalism at the door check: while I do believe that the study of our social-cognitive capacities are fascinating given that we as humans are ULTRA-social beings, I think it’s important to recognize that 1) just because such capacities haven’t been observed in other species doesn’t mean they don’t exist and 2) if they don’t exist it’s just because they don’t NEED it to survive and be the cool and unique animals they are-

Alright. Y’all KNOW we can’t talk about human empathy without getting into videos of babies. So here. Meet Addison and Nathan: Baby Empathy

You might be asking yourself, what just happened? Why did baby Addison just randomly (?) start crying right after baby Nathan did (both of whom have probably spent a year MAX in this world)? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not random at all! Frans de Waal, a Dutch primatologist and ethologist, would call it “emotional contagion”, where one party (baby Addison) is affected by another’s (baby Nathan) emotional/arousal state (de Waal, 2008). Many believe this to be the lowest level of empathic processes shared by all animals (humans, non-human primates, rats and mice, pigeons, oh my!) who are capable of exhibiting some extent of empathy. For humans in particular, though, it’s insane to me that already as wee babs we have this innate tendency to recognize others and their emotions and respond in certain ways. And it only gets better! Literally!

Ok Gaby, really cool, but what’s the use for it? Other animals might not need it to survive, but why do we?

Well. If you think about what we look like vs. what we think like, it actually makes a lot of sense. From a long long long long time ago (~7 million years ago to be kinda ish exact) when the human lineage diverged from bonobos and chimpanzees up to now, we’ve lost A LOT of survival perks along the way. We lost the impressive ability to swing from trees (also known as brachiation,,, can you tell I’m an evolutionary bio major yet?), we started walking on two legs and became slower, we lost muscle definition, we lost our sharp teeth…………………… 

BUT, we gained a whole lot in the process, too. In particular, we started working together in groups, and our brains started to grow and allow for us to use our environment to our advantage through tool-use and other forms of culture. We work better in groups and therefore face a greater chance of survival if we help each other out, and what better way to make sure we help each other out than having systems in our brain that easily allow for us to feel and care for others in pain or distress? Boom. Empathy.

Obviously, it’s not a perfect system, and we’ve all had our tough times with empathy (more on this to come from Julie). Just last week, I tried to approach a problem that one of my closest friends was facing from his perspective, and ended up giving him absolutely atrocious advice (HEYO alliteration) because I was still unconsciously assuming what I would do in that situation even though we are radically different people. Eh, you win some you lose some. That dude for sure isn’t asking for my help any time soon, but HEY, we’re just talking about the fact that I could even TRY to look at something from his perspective and how that’s still heckin’ awesome. What a neat and quirky trait of ours, you feel what I’m saying? (haha, get it, feel because empathy haha)


Why empathy isn’t always easy -Julie

So now that Gaby, with her badass human evolutionary biology expertise, has given us the lowdown, it’s time to dive a little deeper into the nooks and crannies of when you and I display empathy. 

Just because babies can empathize with others doesn’t mean that empathy always comes easily. As with most things in life, there are caveats, and balance is key. 

First of all, it’s difficult to try on someone else’s shoes when you’re struggling to tie your own. Maybe you lost your temper with your sibling who ate the last donut you were craving. Maybe you’ve found yourself silently cursing the unbearably slow walker in your path before an important meeting. It’s tough to live, laugh, love in trying times. If you’re reading this in 2020, we’re literally living through a global pandemic, if you’re not feeling like a ray of sunshine, don’t sweat it. It’s ok to not be ok sometimes. Like actually though. 

~ Queue Human” by Christina Perri. ~

If you’re reading this after the pandemic… hi king/queen/anything in between, stop reading this right now and go rage with as many people as possible. 

My point is, sometimes when your own basic needs aren’t met, it can be tough to empathize with others. We learned in our class lecture that empathy takes energy, and so does everything else we do, our energy isn’t limitless, but it can be recharged with self-care.

One need, however, that can increase our ability to empathize with others is the need to belong. Picket et al. (2004) demonstrated that people who feel a higher need to belong become more aware of and sensitive to both positive and negative social cues and are better at inferring another’s state of mind. This is helpful when you’re not feeling socially connected because empathizing with others, as you know by now, can be a stepping stone to forming connections and bonds. 

On the other hand, when you’re feeling socially secure things get tricky. This brings us to ingroups and outgroups. When you feel like you’re part of a group, your ability to empathize with others that are not in the group, in an outgroup, can be subpar. Cikara et al. (2011) found that structures in the brain related to punishment, the anterior cingulate cortex and insula, are engaged when your group fails and a rival group succeeds. They also found that a part of the brain associated with rewards, the ventral striatum, is activated when your group succeeds and the rival group fails, and this was also correlated with an increase in willingness to harm a rival. Feeling pleasure from another’s pain sounds messed up, yet it happens often enough to have a fancy name, schadenfreude. But if your eyes began glazing at all that science, just know that we often empathize more with people we are similar to (ingroups, like friends, family, race, socioeconomic status). As mentioned above and in our class lecture, empathy takes energy, so we have to be discerning in who we invest it in, and those similar to us are our first choices because we trust them.

I think many people express empathy when it’s fitting and possible to do so. Perhaps it’s a switch that can be both automatically and manually turned on. But first other switches have to be turned on. For example, if you’re mentally and physically exhausted, your energy switch is off, so it’s going to be a lot harder to empathize with others. It might also take an extra switch to empathize with someone different from you. I believe you can shift your thoughts and make changes to your physical body (i.e. focus on the present and take deep breaths to recalibrate yourself) to manually turn back on that empathy switch, but only if you really want to. 

For others, the empathy switch is always on, shining its light. In essence, this sounds great, but it definitely takes work to keep the light on without burning out. If this is you, just make sure you’re taking care of yourself! Empathy is important, but self-care and balance is key.

– • – • – • –

I think for me (Gaby), what’s crazy about empathy is that it’s everywhere and happens all the time. Doesn’t matter who you are, where you are, how old you are, what you look like, think like, act like– you’re gonna experience empathy in some way or another. It makes me think about how even in a world where there is currently so much division and hate, there is still capacity for so much love and caring about others and this can’t be taken away no matter how hard people try (granted, there should be more love and empathy but that’s a rant for another day). So yeah. It’s everywhere. It’s so straightforward and ingrained into our human nature but so incredibly complicated and difficult to navigate at times, and yet, we can’t get (and give) enough. And when it does happen to be complicated and difficult, I (Julie) think the best thing you can do is to acknowledge it, because recognizing a problem is the first step to finding a solution. Then from there, remind yourself that whoever you’re interacting with is a human, too, with thoughts, goals, dreams, and feelings. People can tell when you’re truly listening to what they have to say and when you truly care. Plus, empathy is amazing in that it allows you to experience something that isn’t happening to you; I think that sounds pretty magical. So, even if someone’s shoes don’t quite fit your feet, still take that time to try them on and look at life from a different perspective, feeling their emotions. And hey, maybe you’ll have a Cinderella moment, and the shoes will be the perfect fit. We’d love that for you 😉

And that’s the (empa)tea on that.



Gaby + Julie


Amaral, J. (2014, December 14). Baby Empathy [Video]. YouTube.

Cikara, M., Botvinick, M., Fiske, S. (2011). Us Versus Them: Social Identity Shapes Neural Responses to Intergroup Competition and Harm. Psychological Science, 22(3), 306–313.

de Waal, F. (2008). Putting the Altruism Back into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 279–300

Picket, C., Gardner, W., Knowles, M. (2004). Getting a Cue: The Need to Belong and Enhanced Sensitivity to Social Cues. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(9), 1095-1107.

Vertudaches, L. (2015). Sad Best Friends. [GIF]. GIPHY.

Tags: Uncategorized