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Augustinians reveal recipe for close friendships

It is a holy grail among behavioural scientists: can you predict how close a group will become? An international research team from Leiden, Oxford and Helsinki has investigated the development of friendships within the Leiden student association Augustinus and obtained some remarkable results.

The British, Finnish and Leiden researchers had just met up and were enjoying a beer in the Saint, the grand hall of the Augustinus building, when they unexpectedly witnessed a very special ‘rite of passage’. An excited procession of first-year students, wearing face paint and the outfits of their own Augustinus ‘club’ (Dutch: cordial; club of around 15 students within the same year), streamed into the hall. Dancing and singing, trying to outdo one another, they were celebrating the inauguration of that year’s new clubs.

Augustijnen in de grote zaal van Augustinus. Foto: Marc de Haan

Fast way of making friends

‘Wow, it was fantastic,’ recalls Max van Duijn, a specialist in cognition at Leiden University. ‘My colleague Tamas David-Barrett from Oxford, who does behavioural research all over the world, nearly passed out.’ While in Oxford conducting research for his PhD, this old-Augustinian had mentioned that his student association (or ‘fraternity’) in Leiden is a kind of pressure cooker for friendship formation. This is precisely the research field of evolutionary anthropologist David-Barrett, who was immediately interested and soon afterwards set up an international research team: the Friendship Fraternity Study. Fortunately, Augustinus was happy to cooperate. On 14 July this year, at a symposium marking the 125th anniversary of Augustinus, Van Duijn, David-Barrett and the Finnish sociologist Anna Rotkirch shared the preliminary research results with a hall full of Augustinians.

Bonding hormones

What is so special about this kind of student association? Van Duijn: ‘It’s an anthropological cliché, of course, but in traditional societies you often have a concentration of several rituals: singing together, synchronous movement through dancing, for instance, cooking and eating together, a strong symbolic culture and a shared mythology. We know that this leads to the release of bonding hormones. In modern societies, activities of this kind are usually highly fragmented across different parts of life. We sing together in church or in a choir. We play sports, eat or dance with different people in each case. But in a Dutch student association, you see all those activities converging in a similar ritualistic setting.’

Family-like support group

A place like this, where even in the 21st century everything is combined, is a gold mine for researchers. ‘The university is traditionally a place to which young people come from a wide hinterland. They leave their home, their family and friends, and need to build up a new support group in a short space of time. That's why you often see culturally evolved groups and institutions around universities that can help with this,’ explains Van Duijn. In other countries, these groups are often part of the university: the college or campus where students live. But in the Netherlands this role is fulfilled by the student associations, and they have developed all kinds of customs over the course of many decades. The Friendship Fraternity Study began in 2013 with an investigation of these customs, and since then many papers have been given at international conferences and published in respected journals, with three more new articles soon to appear.

Three hundred Augustinians on their way to the Pieterskerk in 2014 for their inauguration. Photo: Loek Kopermolen (Unity).

Researchers aimed for minimal presence

For almost four years, the researchers monitored the cohort of Augustinians who joined in 2013, but not in the actual Augustinus building itself. ‘It was very tempting to do more observational and qualitative research, especially after seeing that inauguration ritual. But we wanted to minimise any invasive presence, so that we didn’t influence the social processes.’ More than 250 Augustinians periodically answered questionnaires about themselves and their club (cordial). They also participated in a number of experiments.

Personality an important predictor

An interesting point for behavioural scientists – and perhaps the million-dollar question for Augustinians – is whether group formation can be predicted in advance. Which clubs, and with what combination of individuals, become the closest? What causes members to get together frequently and report strong bonds among themselves? It turns out that clubs whose members have largely the same personality type, such as introvert or extravert, are closer and more successful in terms of certain criteria than those with a more varied composition. And this also applies for having similar ethics, for instance with regard to dating behaviour. But surely many studies have shown that diversity is actually good for team bonding? Van Duijn: ‘We haven’t looked at work situations, of course. It’s possible that diversity is actually good if a team has to work on something in a goal-oriented way, because differences between the members will keep the group focused.’

Competitive singing

In a day of experiments, the Augustinians sang their fraternity songs both cooperatively and competitively, as they do within Augustinus itself. The researchers assembled small groups of Augustinians from the same club and from different clubs. They found that when the students sang together, they reported feeling a stronger bond with people that they previously did not know well. But the team also discovered that singing can have a ‘darker side’. Students who sang competitively – trying to drown out each other’s competitive songs – against clubmates reported just after the session that they immediately felt less bonded with those members of their own club. ‘This will probably soon wear off, when you do other things together again – just like you don’t immediately become good friends simply from one occasion of singing together. But what we found particularly interesting is that you can induce the feeling of bonding or alienation, measurably and in real time, simply by singing together.’

Survey of old-Augustinians

The question is how long those friendships forged in the student years will last. To find out, the team surveyed the old-Augustinians who joined between 1995 and 2005 and are therefore now in their thirties and early forties. They discovered that the friendships are indeed long-lasting and many clubmates still see each other on a regular basis. Van Duijn: ‘Of course, the people who still have a connection with Augustinus are going to be more likely to participate in the survey. But we have more than a hundred clubs in the dataset and two-thirds of them still see each other regularly.’

Network good for well-being

The participants in the survey also show reasonably high scores on the question of how satisfied they are with their life, and this is not too surprising. ‘A stable social network is a good predictor of your health and well-being in the longer term. In fact, some Scandinavian studies have even suggested that a good social network is just as important for predicting life expectancy in the long term as whether you smoke or not.’

Text: Linda van Putten
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Dunbar's numbers

The structures of Augustinus roughly correspond with the famous numbers 5, 15, 50 and 150 identified by Robin Dunbar, the renowned evolutionary psychologist from Oxford, in his social network theory. People have on average the most intimate bond with four other people, and also operate within a group of about 15 friends – which is approximately the same size as an Augustinus ‘club’ (cordial). These clubs are usually made up of ‘inner circles’ of 5. A ‘society’ (gezelschap or dispuut) – a larger group within a student association, with members from different years – usually has around 50 members. And in the case of Augustinus, the total annual cohort divides almost precisely into two ‘camp groups’ of 150 Augustinians. So it’s hardly surprising that Dunbar, a specialist in primate behaviour, has for many years been enthusiastically helping the team with ideas for the research on Augustinus, says Van Duijn.

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