Everyone Needs a “Mean” Friend—Here’s Why

Turns out there IS such a thing as tough love? Who needs that? All of us, according to new research.

friendsJakub Zak/ShutterstockTypically, all we want from a friend is support—unconditional, uncritical, and unwavering support. OK, that’s not completely realistic, but new research suggests it may not even be healthy. (By the way, there are at least 24 tricks to being a good friend that we could all benefit from knowing.) According to a study from the University of Plymouth, when a friend is cruel, she or he might actually be kind—even if it doesn’t feel that way.

Researchers in the UK developed a theory that when we put ourselves in another person’s shoes, we might choose to be critical if we thought it could help that person achieve an important goal: Imagine the friend who keeps making terrible relationship choices, for example, and you’d love to get her to stop. To test the theory, the researchers asked volunteers to play a violent video game, and then give advice to a partner who was going through tough personal times on winning the game. (The partner was imaginary.) The researchers found that volunteers were more likely to go negative if they felt it was important for their partner to win the game.

Based on the results, the researchers concluded that empathy led people to choose negative emotional experiences for their partner because they believed this would ultimately help their partner be successful. Extrapolating this to real life, being frank with the person who keeps dating criminals could help them out in the long run.

But if you’re going to take this approach, it’s important to go about it the right way. According to the study, you shouldn’t berate your friend or make them feel like a fool. Instead, you want to present the situation in a way that your friend can imagine a worst-case scenario. Ask them how they would feel if they had to go through yet another heartbreak coupled with identity theft, as opposed to telling them they have terrible taste in partners. This alternative perspective can help increase your friend’s chances of making better decisions and reaching their goal (here are some proven ways to help everyone make better decisions). “These findings shed light on social dynamics, helping us to understand, for instance, why we sometimes may try to make our loved ones feel bad if we perceive this emotion to be useful to achieve a goal,” says study author Belén López-Pérez, a psychological scientist who is now at Liverpool Health University, in ScienceDaily.

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