Psychology of Friends and Enemies

November 4, 2013—From “mean girls” in college to Facebook “friends” to enemies in Afghanistan, a new book edited by two Georgetown professors examines how people make friends and enemies and everything in between.

In the two-volume The Psychology of Friendship and Enmity: Relationships in Love, Work, Politics and War (Praeger, 2013), edited by Georgetown psychology professors Fathali Moghaddam and Rom Harré, researchers examine situations that arise in international diplomacy, in school, at work, in romances and between races and genders, to name a few.

“The fascinating feature of friendship and enmity is that it is universal to humans, yet also highly culture- and context-dependent and changing across generations,” said Moghaddam, citing Facebook as an example. “Friendship on Facebook is normative for teenagers, who are ‘natives’ to the new electronic communications systems, but alien to most adults, who are ‘immigrants’ to the new land of electronic communications,” he said.

Ten Georgetown alumni and two current students contributed to the 28 chapters, whose titles range from “‘Mean Girls’ Go to College: Conflicting Storylines of Friendship and Enmity Among Young Adults” to “Friends and Enemies in the Crime of Sex Trafficking.”

Professor of Psychology Steven Sabat penned a chapter on friendships among those living with dementia. Sabat and Professor Kate de Medeiros, from the Miami University of Ohio, found that “that people diagnosed with dementia and living in long-term care residences, are not only capable of having friendships, but also benefit from those relationships,” he explained. Sabat’s findings contradict the negative portrait of people living with dementia, who are often seen as “‘blissfully unaware’ of their surroundings and of how they are treated by others, and even if they are treated badly, they ‘won’t remember it anyway,’” he said.

“People diagnosed with dementia are able to, and want to, have positive, mutually respectful, caring social relationships with others even when they are living in long-term care settings,” he continued.

The Psychology of Friendship and Enmity also examines the processes for friendship and enmity amid complex group dynamics. One crucial type of friendship, Moghaddam says, is between individuals who belong to groups that are enemies, such as friendships between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East or Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. “These types of friendships where an individual is reaching out to other individuals across group lines, where there are historical conflicts that need to be healed, are pivotal in ultimately changing the relationships between groups,” he said.

These individuals create friendships and relationships despite group patterns instilled in them since birth. “Patterns of group and inter-group friendships already exist before our birth, so in a sense we are born into group friendships and enmities, particularly in parts of the world where there is inter-group rivalry and conflict,” Moghaddam said. “The child growing up in these conflict zones has to struggle to break out of the patterns of friendship and enmity established by groups, sometimes over decades and even centuries,” he continued.

All of the chapters address the dynamic nature of friendship and enmity. “Human relationships, both at the inter-personal and inter-group levels, are continually in flux, never static. [They] involve mixed and complex emotions, ” he explained. “This is one reason why it is possible for friendship to slide into enmity and enmity to slide into friendship. Our ultimate concern, however, is to present ways in which individuals, groups, and nations can learn to be friends.”