Study: College Friends Stay Close

Best friends. (Image credit: dreamstime, Noriko Cooper)

Keeping in touch with college pals can seem like a challenge—but it can be as simple as picking up the phone, communication experts say.

Having and keeping close friends throughout life is important for emotional health, said Glenn Sparks of Purdue University. And college is a key time for generating close friends, he said.

"This is a kind of a unique time in people's lives, and they have the time and the frequency of contact with each other to really develop these kinds of close relationships," Sparks said.

His new study of the factors that predict success with post-college friendship maintenance showed that living close to one another is not the key factor. The best way to keep in touch with friends and maintain that sense of closeness, Sparks said, is to pick up the phone and call your friend whenever something important happens in your life, whether it's good or bad news.

"Friends that do that inevitably have an easier time maintaining that close sense of connection," Sparks said.

Post-college whirlwind

The study started when Sparks' undergraduate mentor, Em Griffin of Wheaton College in Massachusetts, began to collect data on college friends in 1983 to see if he could find any predictors of long-term closeness between the pairs.

The researchers asked pairs of same-sex best friends (female-female and male-male) and male-female best friends about certain possible indicators of closeness, including how long they had been friends, how they perceived themselves relative to their friend, how similar their major was, and how well they played a game similar to Taboo, a popular word-guessing game (which reveals how well friends understand each other's thought processes).

The results showed that friends can overcome the tumult of the first few years out of college, which typically involves a whirlwind of events that can take time away from maintaining a friendship: people are starting off in their careers, entering romantic relationships, having children and moving frequently.

"In America, we move on average once every five years, and in this sample, people moved even more frequently than that," Sparks said. "When you move around, you lose your contacts."

But moving far away from each other didn't seem to necessarily affect the closeness of the friendships in the study. One reason for this, especially in the latter years of the study, might be the many forms of electronic communication available today, such as email and different chatting programs that can counteract that distance.

"[They do] enable us to keep relationships warm that are already established," Sparks said.

Going the distance

Of course, not every friendship is destined to last—because people can change after college, friends might simply grow apart.

Ultimately, the friends in the study who were most likely to keep in touch, whether by email or picking up the phone (based on a 2002 follow-up with the friend pairs), was predicted by two factors, Sparks said: how close the friends were during the formative years of the friendship (indicated by how many months they had been friends) and how well they understand each other or have similar interests (indicated by how well they played the Taboo game and how similar their majors were).

"So the more investment the friendship pair had when they came to the study in 1983," Sparks said, "the more likely they were to be close 19 years later."

Andrea Thompson
Live Science Contributor

Andrea Thompson is an associate editor at Scientific American, where she covers sustainability, energy and the environment. Prior to that, she was a senior writer covering climate science at Climate Central and a reporter and editor at Live Science, where she primarily covered Earth science and the environment. She holds a graduate degree in science health and environmental reporting from New York University, as well as a bachelor of science and and masters of science in atmospheric chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology.