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Whose Opinion Matters More: Parents' or Friends'?

When my wife and I first started dating, she would joke that because I valued my best friend’s opinion so much, we would only be able to stay together if he approved of her…at least I think she was joking.  Fortunately, he gave me his blessing, and now my wife and I are happily married. But why wasn’t my wife worried about what my parents would think of her? Did she believe that I don’t trust my parents’ advice? (Mom and Dad, I do listen to your advice…most of the time). Or did my wife simply believe that my best friend’s advice would carry more weight than my parents’?

Researchers have examined just this – whose opinion, friends' or parents', has more influence on individuals’ dating choices.1 In the study, participants first completed a short questionnaire about themselves and then provided researchers with contact information for a friend and a parent. Participants were led to believe the researchers would contact the friend and parent to ask them some questions. A few weeks later, participants returned to the lab and interacted with two potential romantic partners over instant messenger. In reality, the potential partners were actually research assistants who responded to the participants’ messages with scripted, standardized replies. After interacting with both potential partners, participants received feedback about one of the interaction partners (no information was given about the other partner, which served as a control condition). Participants were told one of three things: (1) both their friend and parent approved of the partner; (2) both disapproved; or (3) one person approved (e.g., friend) and the other disapproved (e.g., parent). (Importantly, participants believed this feedback because they had previously given permission for the researchers to contact their friend and parent. In reality, this feedback was false – neither the friend nor the parent was ever asked for their opinion). Afterward, participants rated how much they liked each interaction partner and decided with which of the two partners they wished to continue interacting. 

So to recap, Jenny came to a lab, answered some questions about herself, then gave the researchers permission to contact a friend and parent. Jenny then comes back to the lab a couple weeks later, interacts with two people over instant message, and is told that her friend and/or parent approve of one of the partners. Jenny then decides how much she likes the interaction partners and which one she would like to get to know further.

A few interesting patterns emerged from the study. First, friend’s – but not parent’s – opinions predicted whether or not participants liked the interaction partner. Additionally, participants were more than twice as likely to choose the interaction partner the friend approved of. Parent’s opinion, on the other hand, did not generally predict which interaction partner participants chose. But parents’ opinions did matter for some participants. For those indicating that they relied more heavily on their parents than their friend for resources (such as receiving comfort and advice or financial assistance), the parent’s approval or disapproval predicted how much participants liked the interaction partner. That’s right, if Mom or Dad does stuff for you, then you’ll actually listen to them when judging potential partners. That said, only your friends affect who you finally choose. 

To summarize, our friends’ opinions more strongly influence how much we like and are willing to date a potential romantic partner than do our parents’ opinions…unless we rely on our parents for more resources than our friends. So, it turns out that my wife’s instinct was correct (as it usually is, but don’t let her know I admitted it) – my best friend’s opinion was going to more strongly affect how much I liked her than would my parent’s opinion, but that’s mostly because I was socially and emotionally independent at that point in my life. It appears, then, that Mama only knows best (or rather, influences us most) when Mama is still the go-to person in our lives. Sorry Mama.

Check out other research on your friends and your romantic relationships here.

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1Wright, B. L., & Sinclair, H. C. (in press). Pulling the strings: Effects of friend and parent opinions on dating choices. Personal Relationships. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2011.01390.x

Dr. Brent Mattingly - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Mattingly's research, broadly conceptualized, focuses on the intersection of romantic relationships and the self. His specific lines of research all examine how individual-level constructs (e.g., motivation, attachment, self-regulation) are associated with various relational processes.

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