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Dale Carnegie’s “How To Win Friends And Influence People” was wrong.
Well, at least one of his principles was. But we’ll get to that in a second…
Like you, I spent the pandemic not seeing friends nearly as often – but I was actually writing about friendship at the time. Oh, irony.
The second section of my new book Plays Well With Others gives the Mythbusters treatment to the old maxim “Is a friend in need a friend indeed?” Post-pandemic, I want all our friendships to not only go back to normal, but to be awesome — to give off a Strontium-90 glow.
So this post is an excerpt from the friendship section of the book with solid tips you can put to use immediately to not only revitalize and deepen your friendships, but to also start making new ones.
Alrighty, let’s get to it…
Since it was first published in 1936, How to Win Friends and Influence People has sold over thirty million copies, and nearly a century later it still sells more than a quarter million copies each year. Carnegie’s text intersperses stories with information on how to be better with people and obviously bears no resemblance whatsoever to the book you’re reading right now.
So what does Dale recommend? He encourages people to listen, to be interested in others, to speak to them from their point of view, to sincerely flatter others, to seek similarity, to avoid conflict, and many other things that seem obvious—but that we all routinely forget to do. However, Carnegie’s book was written before the dawn of most formal research in the area and is largely anecdotal. Does his advice line up with modern social science?
Surprisingly, yes. As ASU’s Daniel Hruschka notes, the majority of Carnegie’s fundamental techniques have been validated by numerous experiments. One of his methods is seeking similarity. Ever watch someone get physically hurt and you flinch sympathetically? MRI studies by neuroscientist David Eagleman show that sympathetic pain is increased when we perceive the victim as being similar to ourselves, even if the grouping is arbitrary. Social scientist Jonathan Haidt comments, “We just don’t feel as much empathy for those we see as ‘other.’”
That said, good ol’ Dale did get one wrong. The eighth principle in his book says, “Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.” Remember when we discussed just how terrible we are at reading other people’s minds? Yeah, exactly. Nicholas Epley tested Dale’s suggestion and doesn’t mince words about it: “Never have we found any evidence that perspective taking—putting yourself in another person’s shoes and imagining the world through his or her eyes—increased accuracy in these judgments.” Not only isn’t it effective, but it actually makes you worse at relating to them. Sorry, Dale.
But he was only wrong about that one issue. In his defense, millions have used his techniques with great success including famous people like, um… Charles Manson. And this leads us to the more relevant problem with Carnegie’s techniques: not that they’re unscientific, but that they can be manipulative and lead to shallow friendships. (Countdown to lawsuit from the Carnegie estate: five, four, three…)
Carnegie’s book is great for the early stages of relationships, it’s excellent for transactional relationships with business contacts… but it’s also a wonderful playbook for con men. It’s not focused on developing long-term intimacy: it’s much more about tactically gaining benefit from people. Carnegie frequently uses phrases like “human engineering” and “making people glad to do what you want.” To be fair, Carnegie repeatedly says you should have good intentions, but this rings hollow. Sociologist Robert Bellah wrote, “For Carnegie, friendship was an occupational tool for entrepreneurs, an instrument of the will in an inherently competitive society.” If you’re looking for a blood brother or sister from another mister, this isn’t going to do it. It’s the equivalent of using a “How to Pick Up Girls” book to navigate the ups and downs of a multidecade marriage.
So what does produce deep friendships? This leads us to an area of academic study called “signaling theory.” Let’s say I tell you I’m a tough guy. Do you believe me? On the other hand, let’s say you see the UFC heavyweight championship belt being wrapped around my waist at the end of a televised fight. Which would better convince you I’m not the guy you want to mess with?
A “costly” signal is a more powerful signal. Saying I’m a tough guy is easy. Me faking a live UFC event before a crowd of thousands is far harder. We operate based on signaling theory all the time; we’re just rarely aware of it. Carnegie teaches us friendship signals, but they’re not costly. That’s why as a reader we like them; they’re easy to do. That’s also why con men like them; they’re easy to fake. Saying “I’ll be there for you” is one thing. Showing up for a full day of helping you move is a much more costly, and powerful, signal. Which would convince you I’m a real friend?
So which costly signals do we want to display (and look for) when it comes to true friends? The experts firmly agree on two, the first one being time. Why is time so powerful? Because it’s scarce, and scarce = costly. Want to make someone feel special? Do something for them you simply cannot do for others. If I give you an hour of my time every day, I cannot do that for more than twenty-four people. Cannot. End of discussion. Thank you for calling.
As we discussed, friendship beats other relationships in terms of happiness, but what is it specifically that works that magic? Melikşah Demır of Northern Arizona University says it’s companionship—merely spending time together. And, unsurprisingly, what does research say is the most common cause of conflict in friendships? Once again, time. There’s no getting around it: time is critical.
(If you’re enjoying this, preorder the book.)
So how do we make more time for friends as an adult? The key comes down to rituals. Think about the people you do keep up with, and you’ll probably find a ritual, conscious or not, underneath it. “We talk every Sunday,” or “we exercise together.” Replicate that. It works. Find something to do together consistently. Research from Notre Dame that analyzed over eight million phone calls showed touching base in some form every two weeks is a good target to shoot for. Hit that minimum frequency, and friendships are more likely to persist.
But making new friends can require even more time. That process can be slower than inflight internet, which is one reason we’re so bad at it as we age. How much time? Are you sitting down? Jeff Hall’s research found that it took as many as sixty hours to develop a light friendship, sometimes one hundred hours to get to full-fledged “friend” status, and two hundred or more hours to unlock the vaunted “best friend” achievement. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but either way—yowzers, that’s a lot of time.
But that’s only part of the equation. Hall also found that how people talked mattered. We’ve all hit that wall with a potential friend where the small talk starts to go in circles. You just can’t seem to break through to the next level. And that’s one problem with Carnegie’s work: the smiling and head bobbing get you only so far. Want to make good friends without dozens of hours? You can do it—but Carnegie won’t get you there. Arthur Aron got strangers to feel like lifelong pals in just forty-five minutes. How? Well, that leads us to our second costly signal: vulnerability.
It’s ironic: when we meet new people, we often try to impress them—and this can be a terrible idea. Through a series of six studies, researchers found that signaling high status doesn’t help new friendships, it hurts them. Again, might be good for sales calls or conveying leadership, but it makes creating deep friendships much more difficult.
There’s been a lot of talk about vulnerability lately, but most of us just nod our heads and go right back to trying to seem perfect. Why? Cause it’s really frickin’ scary to put yourself out there. You could be mocked or rejected, or the information could be used against you. Vulnerability gives us flashbacks to worst-case scenarios from high school. (Among the Kunyi tribe of Congo, too much self-disclosure is said to make one more susceptible to witchcraft, so perhaps opening up is even more dangerous than you thought.) We know it’s risky. Large-scale studies by Harvard sociologist Mario Luis Small showed that we’re often more likely to tell very personal details to strangers than close friends.
We don’t want awful people to exploit our weaknesses, but the irony is that our weaknesses are where trust comes from. In a paper titled “Can We Trust Trust?” Diego Gambetta wrote, “The concession of trust… can generate the very behavior which might logically seem to be its pre-condition.” In other words, trust creates trust. The danger of being exploited creates the value inherent in trust, giving it its power. How do you signal you’re trustworthy? By trusting someone else. And then, often, the trust in you creates the trust in them.
Vulnerability tells people they’re part of an exclusive club. They’re special to you. Aron found that self-disclosure directly aids in producing friends. And that’s how he got people to become best buds in forty-five minutes.
Not only is vulnerability effective, it’s also not quite as dangerous as you think. Psychology has documented the “beautiful mess effect”—that we consistently overestimate how negatively our errors will be perceived. We think we’ll be seen as a moron and exiled to a distant village, but when surveyed, most people see the occasional screw-up as a positive. You make an error and are terrified you’ll be seen as inadequate. But when others make the same error, you’re rarely as judgmental, and it often warms you to that person.
What’s the best way to dip your toe in the pool of vulnerability? Well, here goes: I’m a man in his late forties who coos at puppy pictures on Instagram and occasionally speaks to them in babytalk. Yes, I write smarty-smart, self-important books about science and I babytalk to pictures of puppies on Instagram. Do you like me less or more? Trust me less or more?
So next time you’re with someone you care about, or someone you want to deepen your friendship with, follow The Scary Rule™: If it scares you, say it. You don’t need to go full bore just yet. Don’t confess to any murders at Christmas dinner. Start slow and build. Stretch the bounds of the sensitive things you’re willing to admit about yourself, and, by the same token, ask more sensitive questions than you’re normally comfortable asking. And when your friend admits vulnerable things, do not recoil and scream, “YOU DID WHAT?!?!” Accept them. Then, Daniel Hruschka says, “raise the stakes.” As long as you feel emotionally safe and you’re getting a positive reception, share more. That’s how you build a deep friendship.
Still hesitant about opening up? Then let me put the metaphorical gun to your head: not being vulnerable kills friendships. That same study on the number of hours required to make a friend showed more small talk in a friendship produced a drop in closeness. Oh, and not being open and vulnerable doesn’t just kill friendships: it can also kill you. University of Pennsylvania professor Robert Garfield notes that not opening up prolongs minor illnesses, increases the likelihood of a first heart attack, and doubles the chance it will be lethal.
Make the time, vulnerably share your thoughts, and raise the stakes. If all goes well, they do the same. This gets us away from transactional relationships. With trust established, we can ignore costs to a greater degree, as can they. You don’t worry about how big the favor is or what they’ve done for you lately—you’re past that. Now you only have to ask one question: “Are they a friend?” And if they are, you help…
Okay, that’s enough excerpting for now. But the book goes so much further. We’ll dive deep into the neuroscience of friendship and unlock the secrets of getting others to feel close to you. We’ll learn to detect the lies of narcissists — and even figure out how to make them become better people in the process. And much, much more.
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