Bullies are often seen as powerful, but Brock Associate Professor of Psychology Andrew Dane sees greater strength in being a good friend.
“There’s tremendous social power in developing good close friendships,” Dane said in advance of International Day of Friendship on Tuesday, July 30. “The thing about friendship is that it’s for mutual benefit. It’s about sticking together, loyalty, reciprocity, prosocial behaviour and helping one another, and there’s a lot of strength in that.”
On International Day of Friendship, the United Nations invites individuals and organizations around the world to celebrate friendship according to their own cultures and circumstances.
Reflecting on the pending celebration, Dane said research has shown that the attachment relationship between an infant and parent is crucial to building a child’s lifelong capacity to develop healthy relationships, including friendships.
“Being there consistently is probably the most important thing parents can do,” he said. “By being available and sensitive in responding to the child’s needs, parents demonstrate that, when you need help, you can ask people and they will support you, they will understand you and they will make you feel better.”
The parent-child dynamic provides a template for future relationships, Dane said. People who are securely attached are more open to intimacy and trust, and they expect kindness and support from others.
“Everybody needs help and support,” Dane said. “Friends can be that resource for you when you need it.”
But it’s not just about companionship. Having friends can also offer a measure of protection.
Bullies use coercive, aggressive and purposeful behaviour to get what they want, he said, and they tend to pick on vulnerable people to show they’re tough and strong.
“But, people who have friends are less likely to be victimized because they have people there to stick up for them.”
Dane said friends are crucial in terms of mental health, too.
“That social support protects people against developing things like depression, for example, or post-traumatic stress disorder after a trauma.”
The power of friendship extends beyond our personal lives. According to the UN, teaching children to live together in peace and harmony can contribute to international peace and co-operation.
It’s a notion Dane agrees with.
“What I say about bullying versus prosocial behaviour and friendship applies at a political level,” he said. “There are parallels when it comes to relationships between leaders and countries.”
Unfortunately, U.S. President Donald Trump has inflicted “lasting damage to trust and co-operation” by backing out of several major international agreements, he said.
Dane acknowledged there is a risk in putting your trust in someone who could take advantage of you. But, he said, “it’s also a strength because, through those relationships, you can achieve a lot of your goals in a way where everybody benefits instead of a selfish way where people go along with you because they’re afraid or intimidated.”
Seen through the lens of evolutionary psychology, bullying has its benefits, said Dane. Bullies tend to have more sex partners, giving them more chances to pass on their genes — but those benefits come at a cost.
The dominance they achieve in the short term comes at the expense of co-operative long-term relationships, both at the individual and the societal level. Although they are popular, bullies are not well liked.
In contrast, “co-operation, friendships and prosocial behaviour are all about building relationships. The payoffs are not as obvious but they’re more long term,” he said.
“We’re much better off as individuals and as a society if people recognize the importance and work toward building those healthy prosocial relationships, including friendships and romantic relationships,” Dane said. “That’s the antidote to bullying, I think.”
“Friendship is a better way to achieve one’s goals and to have social harmony and peace. It’s how you achieve an egalitarian society.”