a study of the friend zone: the scientific reasons why she’s just not that into you
Deep in the darkest corners of Reddit lie small communities where men who had their romantic hopes dashed have given up and now wallow in self-pity, lashing out at the caricatures of sexually active men who they think transfix women with their sculpted muscles or money, luring them away from nice guys like them. Any women they know have long “friendzoned” them, and it drives them up a wall to hear these women lament their boyfriends’ flaws as they wish for “nice guys” to date. But we’re nice, they hiss wounded, what’s the problem with dating us? Well, for one, scientifically speaking, she is far more likely to find you less attractive than you find her, and it makes her life a lot more difficult if she’s attracted to her significant other and her friends. Not only that, but she’s objectively, or at least as objectively as we could quantify, less interested in her male friends than they think she is.
In a fairly small, but extremely relevant sample size, the stereotype that men size up their female friends as potential dates more often than women size up their male friends, seems to hold up. If we were to get more detailed, the difference is not immense, the average attraction level on a scale of one to nine given by men to their female friends was a 5, while women gave their male friends and average of 4, which was heavily influenced by how satisfied they felt in their existing romantic relationships. The implication, hints the study, is that because women show less attraction towards their male friends when in a good relationship, they just really don’t want to get entangled in romantic triangles, and aren’t going to start befriending men who they find just as sexually desirable as their partners. It gets worse for the male friends in their late teens and early 20s, by the way, because their perspectives of the friendship and its future are skewed.
You see, the researchers also found that men overestimate just how attracted to them their female friends are while those friends didn’t even think about them in a sexual way. The mismatch is not wild, mind you, just 0.51 on the study’s nine point scale, but more than enough to cause plenty of awkward misunderstandings down the road. However, that problem kind of fixes itself according to the second part of the study. By middle age, men report far less attraction to their female friends while middle age women report close to as little attraction to male friends as younger women. So in the span of 20 or so years, men and women are more satisfied with purely platonic cross-gender friendships, which the researchers chalked up to the basic milestones of age. Younger men are looking for future mates as are women, but women tend to be more selective. As older men get married and start worrying about career progression and kids, they’re no longer on the prowl as much, hence they’re making cross-gender friendships in a very different mindset.
So armed with this information, what do we make of internet “nice guys” on forums who are mad at the world that they’re being friendzoned? Well, their problem is their approach. How many romantic comedies are based on the utterly insipid premise that you should befriend a woman who dates a total jackass, be nice to her, be there for her when they split, and become the new significant other? The basic message society gives them is that women work a little like arcade machines; you put enough tokens in (do nice, thoughtful things for her), and you get to play the game (have sex). In reality, trying to befriend someone just to have sex with this person is really to befriend them under false pretenses and under the unspoken assumption that after enough favors, this person will owe you sex and companionship. Even the nicest and most understanding person would have a conniption when confronted with this by a supposedly good, trusted friend, and understandably so!
Psychologists basically handed us some evidence indicating that people who are already in relationships, especially women, are often not looking to start dating their friends, and aren’t that attracted to them beyond a polite “yeah, my friend is kinda cute/cool/nice” for the remainder of the friendship. This would also imply that when the friend for whom you’re pining gets out of a relationship, you are not going to be in some sort of short list for the next significant other. You might be a pick-me-up rebound, which kind of sucks, but your friend will probably end up with someone else. If you’re actually, legitimately attracted to someone, you need to tell this person up front how you feel and the nature of your interest. Whatever rejection you’ll get will be much less painful and dramatic than the one you’d get with your more than likely doomed attempt to convert a cross-gender friend into a partner later, when he or she — especially she in fact — has grown more attached to you because the former rejection will be a casual interaction, and the latter is going to be a massive betrayal of trust that could instantly end a friendship.
Which brings us to the final question posed by inhabitants of the friendzone online. If they’re so nice, why don’t more women like them? Because, as we can gleam from scientific studies (albeit presented in an unscientific form), kindness is just one thing women find attractive in men. It’s quite literally a bare minimum and no one gets rewarded with much for doing only the bare minimum. Women tended to be most attracted towards displays of ambition and emotional stability in numerous studies. While there will be differences from person to person, statistically speaking across the entire gender, what women want is someone with a little muscle, a good attitude, able to explain what they feel, and who seems to actually be going somewhere good in life as shown by a good career and impressive future prospects. So if you really don’t have anything going for you other than being nice, of course she’s not going to be that into you now or at any point in the foreseeable future. And you being her friend and hoping for more is very likely to backfire…