I'm really having a difficult time with my circle of friends right now. I have a very diverse group of friends, but the political and pandemic drama of the last year has revealed some of my friends have personal ideology that bothers me. I've tried to talk to them about it, but it's like they are living in a different reality. Our differences are starting to make me feel like I should cut them loose as friends, but that feels wrong too. I don't want to be someone who doesn't have room for diverse viewpoints in my friend circle. When is it the right thing to cut and move on?
- Anonymous, Florida
This is a tough one. I'm not one to tell people who to be friends with or who to dump. There's not real formula, no decision science algorithm that I know of that will spit out an answer.
But there are things to think about and consider as you make your own decision. They're important, and decision science can definitely help with those.
So rather than give you an answer, I'm going to ask you some questions. Annoying... I know. But I really do think that if you answer these questions thoughtfully, you'll feel more confident about whatever choice you make.
Does it have to be all or nothing?
The quality of our decisions hinges on our choice set (our options and their trade-offs). Too many options and we can defer our decision, even indefinitely. Too few options and we can limit ourselves too much, forcing us to arrive at a suboptimal outcome.
Half of making the right choice is getting our option set right.
If your option set regarding your friends includes only two possibilities - "should I stay" and "should I go" - you may be limiting yourself into paralysis. All or nothing options make deciding hard to do when option neither is appealing, and having to choose between two bad options may be may be why you're on the fence.
There could be other ways to go, like interacting less often but still being there when they need you (you don't see them regularly but you'll drive each other to the airport). Or interacting just as much but in different ways (you'll go bike riding together but you won't go out to dinner).
So ask yourself: are there other options?
Are you being threatened, or do you just feel that way?
Our brains are wired to respond to danger. It's what keeps us alive. Our brains do this by being highly efficient, which means cutting corners where they need to be cut. Why think slow when you can save energy and just decide?
But there's a drawback to this. By thinking quickly (which is natural), we miss things, important facts, details, or data that can keep us from making the wrong choice too fast.
When people have different beliefs than we do, there's potential for danger. There's a chance that those people might curb our freedoms, constrain our ability to do what we want, sanction us if we choose to do or believe what we think is right. A conversation about different points of view can suddenly become a battle to protect ourselves from a threat. We might react suddenly, exhibiting anger but really feeling fear. We might want to cut ties, unfriend, block, or whatever... all in a swirl of negative emotions.
Our efficient brains, however, see danger when there may not be danger. We may miss important facts or details that would tell us that we aren't actually in harm's way. Because we sometimes think too fast, we see threats when there are no threats.
So ask yourself: is your decision to break up with your friends based on a real threat, or a perceived one?
Are you attached to your friends, or to norms?
Sometimes we hang onto friends because we feel like we have to. It's wrong, we think, to let go of friends just because they have different points of view. It's healthy, we tell ourselves, to have friends who think differently than we do.
Sometimes we do things because we believe they're the right things to do. The problem is, the right things to do may not actually be the right things for us, and more often than we realize, doing what we think is wrong may not be so bad after all.
When our choices are unnecessarily influenced by social norms, and in a bad way, we need to watch out. Social norms are everywhere. They're those unspoken rules that tell us all how to behave, what to expect, and what's unacceptable. They make sure we all face forward in an elevator, cover ourselves appropriately while in public (or on Zoom), chew with our mouths closed, and so on.
Norms are powerful because they come with sanctions: if we don't follow them, we know there will be a negative consequence. A punishment. We may be ostracized, gossiped about, or publicly shamed. Whatever it is, we don't want it, so we follow norms even when they're not best for us personally.
So ok, I get you... it's not cool to dump a friend just because they have an opposing point of view. But if that friend compromises your quality of life, then maybe letting go is not so bad. And maybe what's holding you back isn't the friendship but social norms surrounding how we are supposed to have friendships. Doing the right thing might involve violating a norm and being ok with the consequences, especially if you'll be better off in the long run.
So ask yourself: are you worried about doing what's wrong for you, or are you worried about what other people will think is wrong?
Growth means letting go
Like I said, it's not my place to tell you whether to keep your friends or break up with them. But whatever you do, it should be for the right reasons. And one good reason is growth. Maybe you deserve happiness or maybe you don't. Maybe you deserve to be treated well or maybe you don't. Honestly, I have no idea what it means to "deserve" something. It's as though we have to earn the goodness that comes our way, and I'm not sure that's true.
But what I do know is this: life works best when you set yourself up to grow. It's all about getting better, being kinder, being stronger... all of it. If your friends hold you back from that, then maybe it's time to outgrow them.