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  • HungoverEconomist

Friendship Inferred

Updated: Jun 11, 2020

Over the course of every interaction between two persons, there are events which occur that impact - temporarily or permanently - the bond between the two. These events can bring the two closer or push them apart. Can strengthen or weaken the connection. I will refrain from categorizing these events from being positive and negative. They are simply events. There may be a tendency to think of events which bring people together as being positive, and those events which draw them apart as being negative. However, this would be assuming that closeness is the ideal. Instead, I will assume each connection has an optimal "closeness", and focus more on the events which impact that "closeness". In fact, I can think of several instances in which closeness is not the ideal - e.g. any abusive relationship. In addition, I will attempt to exclude my own personal experiences and bonds from the discussion, however, it is inevitable that they will leak onto the page.

Let me begin by quoting Erich Fromm, who pointedly wrote of mankind's unavoidable desire to form connections in The Art of Loving:

"Man is gifted with reason; he is life being aware of itself he has awareness of himself, of his fellow man, of his past, and of the possibilities of his future. This awareness of himself as a separate entity, the awareness of his own short life span, of the fact that without his will he is born and against his will he dies, that he will die before those whom he loves, or they before him, the awareness of his aloneness and separateness, of his helplessness before the forces of nature and of society, all this makes his separate, disunited existence an unbearable prison. He would become insane could he not liberate himself from this prison and reach out, unite himself in some form or other with men, with the world outside."

It is imperative - at a minimum, desirable - for us to form connections, to escape our aloneness. Case in point, I am writing this very post during a period in which I have decided to temporarily close my connections with the outside world. That is, I have decided to spend some time disconnected from all persons in my life. No email, no phone, no contact. However, in writing this post, I am currently reaching out (connecting) to any and all readers. Now, in my defense, as stated in my first post this blog's primary purpose is to express my thoughts in written word. A device to organize and formalize my perspective on whatever topic I fancy at the time. Thus, if questioned, I will claim that I am writing this post for my own self-exploration.

Back to the subject. Our first connection is formed with our mother (I am going to ignore the issue of twins, especially identical twins, or other multiple birth scenarios). The following connections which form are, typically, with our remaining - if any - family members. Eventually, we begin to build connections to individuals outside of our immediate family. I use build here, because it is usual for these connections to be formed under choice, whereas family connections are forced upon us. I wish to make the distinction between building and family connections, because I think that it is important to recognize the difference. I do not particularly subscribe to the notion of "blood is thicker than water". In fact, I tend to value those bonds which I have chosen to create and maintain higher than those with my immediate family. I will not further philosophize about the need and development of connections, but rather discuss the strength, persistence and durability of the connections and what we can learn from the response of the participants to events. So, the question at hand is: How do these connections evolve and change with the occurrence of events which affect them? And, more importantly, what can we learn from this evolution?

To visualize, I want to think of connections as bridges between two individuals in which traffic can flow in either direction. It is not the length of the bridge that matters, but the strength, integrity and capacity of the bridge. This is my notion of "closeness". The stronger the bridge, the greater capacity, the closer we are. We are both the engineer and the operator. We develop the design and implement the building of the bridge, as well as, monitor the traffic (in both directions), deciding what passes across the bridge. With this metaphor in mind, closeness can also refer to what we allow to pass across the bridge. It is important to note that the frequency of traffic is not necessarily the important factor here. The quality of what is passing across the bridge is important and can easily compensate for frequency. The more intimate and personal the information shared, the closer the connection.

As the engineer and operator of these bridges, we need to actively tend to them. Left unattended these bridges will experience decay. The rate of decay may vary across bridges; however, it is always present, even in the smallest amounts. Thus, these bridges require maintenance. Effort which must be exerted to maintain, monitor, repair, expand. Since these bridges are not free to the individual, it is informative to think about how individuals respond to various shocks, or events, which impact these connections. That is, given some cost to investing/effort in the connection (either to maintain or grow), the effort exerted can provide information on the individual's value of the connection. It is important to keep in mind that this is true for both parties involved. Not only can we infer something about the other individual's value of the connection, we can learn about our own. To be more explicit, the idea here is that individuals face a cost of exerting effort towards a given connection, and in return receive some benefit from the connection, i.e. their value of the connection. An individual weighs the costs and benefits of their effort when choosing how much they wish to invest in a bridge. Thus, given their costs, their effort can illuminate us on the value that they place on, or derive from, the connection.

A couple things to keep in mind. The costs and benefits are, unfortunately, mostly unobservable. This, of course, makes it difficult to make inferences from the observed behavior. I believe we can still learn much from paying attention to how individuals, and ourselves, put effort towards a connection. However, we must be aware that there may be errors in our estimate of the costs to the person, and that there are many factors which can influence an individuals' behavior, some which may not be directly related to the connection and some which we may be unaware of. For example, someone may be experiencing stress from work or family, which may cause a temporary drop in effort. And, it would be a mistake to attribute this fall in effort, due to the external stress, to a fall in their value of the connection. As this example highlights, these costs will vary over time. This is true for the value as well. Therefore, we must be cautious in placing too much weight on any one instance or event. Fortunately, with most bridges, we can observe the traffic and investment over time. Providing more instances and more information about the costs, benefits and effort. However, this does require us to be vigilant and open to receiving, and giving, information throughout the life of the connection. Always learning, always updating, always improving. Lastly, it is important to understand that one person's value of a connection and effort will almost certainly depend on the other person's effort. For example, they may infer, from low effort on my part, that I value the connection very little; they may respond in kind, and provide low effort as well. Therefore, their effort does not necessarily reflect a low potential value to them, but merely a response to my effort.

An example may be useful at this point. Suppose there is an established bridge between to persons, and that nothing outside of this connection is changing in a significant way - i.e. there are no external factors changing and affecting (increasing) the costs, or value. If one party begins, consistently, sharing less and/or more infrequently (reducing effort), then the inference to be made is that their value of that bridge has fallen. To highlight an additional point, I would like to make. Suppose that the individual continues to insist, via words, that they value the connection as before. Either there was some unobserved change in their costs, or they are misrepresenting their true value. Given that overtime we can adjust to changes in costs, even permanent ones; if this reduction in effort persists, then I am inclined to believe the latter is the case. Actions are often more informative than words - i.e. talk is cheap, effort is costly. While trust in one another is still essential, one's actions should be consistent with one's words.

This post is becoming quite long, which may be expected given the topic. However, I will wrap up this long rambling with one additional point (assuming I have made any, or at least any non-obvious ones). In the beginning of a relationship, the building of the bridge will inevitably require a higher level of investment and effort than during the maintenance phase, where there is a more "normal" level of effort. Episodes of growth or repair will also have an above "normal" level. These are periods where effort is spent to provide us with observations to learn about the intrinsic and potential value of the bridge. Therefore, it is expected that there will be a slowdown in effort after the initial building of the bridge, and we should not infer that this is a result of a fall in or low value of the connection. Since there will inevitably be fluctuations in effort due to various reasons, in attempting to infer the value or changes in that value, it is important to pay attention to persistent changes in the effort. Persistent falls in effort suggesting a lesser value and rises suggesting a greater value. An additional important aspect of these episodes of low or high effort is how quickly that effort returns to normal levels. For example, upon a negative shock, the rate at which one repairs the bridge may provide insight on how important the connection is to them. Slow repair may indicate that the individual places lower priority on the connection. This is assuming that the other party is providing effort to repair the bridge. As mentioned previously, if one person is not putting effort into the relationship, the other may respond with lower effort themselves.

The very astute observer may even be able to discern the very nature or intentions underlying one's effort. Regardless of their reasons, we can infer how much they value the connection, evaluate how much they "care". In addition, we may also be able to think about the decomposition of their effort and value, whether it is for narcissistic reasons or more altruistic ones. Since this requires assigning motive to an action, a greater understanding and knowledge of the individual is necessary here. And I would suggest even greater caution in making inferences about motives and intentions.

Lastly, I would like to stress (once again) the importance of being cautious in making any inferences. While there may be information provided, this information is very noisy and there are many things we do not observe. Pay attention, but do not be too quick to make conclusions. Listen, observe, reflect and, most importantly, communicate.

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