Professor Jane Risen on Friendship Formation among Teens from Conflict Areas at the Booth Women Connect Conference

  By Krithika Narayan, Class of 2020

By Krithika Narayan, Class of 2020

Last week, several of Booth’s best and brightest gathered for the Booth Women Connect Conference at the Hilton.

Prof. Jane Risen, a Booth behavioural science professor, gave the keynote speech about her research in friendship formation. The research was conducted using data from a summer camp run by an organization named Seeds of Peace that brings together teenagers from conflict areas, such as Israel and Palestine, in the “neutral zone” of Pleasant Lake, Maine. I was particularly looking forward to this because I, like Professor Risen, attended this camp as a teenager.

 Fueling up for a day at the Conference

Fueling up for a day at the Conference

Generally, there are two main predictors of relationships within groups – similarity and propinquity, a measure of proximity. The question Prof. Risen’s research wanted to answer was “How do we have any 2 very disparate groups live with peace and justice?”

With two groups of hostile Israelis and Palestinians, it was certainly a good question to ask. Incidentally, it’s also a pretty important question in today’s increasingly fragmented world.

The team tracked Israeli and Palestinian teenagers across three years to understand friendship formations inside each group (in-group friendships with high similarity), as well as across groups (out-group friendships with low similarity). They focused on the interaction between the two predictors, hypothesizing that the more often you met someone, the more it counteracted the lack of similarity, building stronger out-group relationships.

Turns out, this hypothesis was absolutely spot-on. For out-group relationships, meeting more frequently in certain settings made it 12 to 15 times more likely for a friendship to form. Settings that encouraged intimacy and self-disclosure, such as a conflict resolution dialogue or sharing a cabin, were particularly powerful. Even negative experiences helped! However, more casual settings that let conversations flow freely, such as eating together, did not have the same effect (small talk anyone?). This was also very indicative of my experiences at the camp, where I shared a bunk with some of my best friends today.

What does this all mean for us? If we’re trying to build better, stronger relationships with our peers, it helps to experience something powerful together. (Is that why we have so many Random Walk friends?) While this might seem obvious, this is Booth, and it’s great to see the numbers back that up. Additionally, if we’re trying to facilitate these relationships, it indicates that setting up guidance for conversations is helpful, as is encouraging self-disclosure (shout-out to LEAD here #phoenixsquad5). Letting conversation flow freely might not get you to build that connection if you’re faced with someone very different from you – and I think almost all of the folks recruiting for consulting can tell you that this week.

These lessons are widely applicable amidst the increasingly polarized political landscape. Personally, the Seeds of Peace camp taught me to listen a bit more to opinions I don’t agree with, hard as that continues to be for me. Overall, Prof Risen’s research resonates deeply with UChicago’s commitment to free and open inquiry and is a good thought to carry while confronted with the incredible diversity at Booth every day.