Everyone wants to be “in” with the popular crowd — even if the people in that crowd aren’t all that nice.
Just as Regina George was the “it” girl in the 2004 film “Mean Girls,” there might actually be some science behind why people are attracted to friends who possess a bit of an attitude.
A new study published in Elsevier’s Evolution and Human Behavior revealed that making friends with unkind people actually could be a means of protection.
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Researchers at Oklahoma State University found that both men and women sometimes prefer friends who are likely to be “vicious” toward their enemies.
Since our friends often interact with others, both positively and negatively, the study suggested that there should be varying preferences “not only for how our friends behave toward us but also for how friends behave toward … other people.”
The study surveyed 1,183 individuals in student and non-student communities in the U.S. and non-student communities in India.
The research revealed that although most people want friends who are kind and trustworthy, people sometimes prefer friends who are “more vicious” than they are friendly — for instance, “toward one’s enemies,” the research revealed.
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The “benefits of friendship depend, in part, on how much one’s friends value oneself relative to others, and thus that a friend’s behavior toward others can influence one’s own outcomes,” the study explained.
“Violence can even become ‘glamorous’ in a twisted way.”
This means that although people want friends who are pleasant to them and to strangers, unpleasant and ferocious behavior can be forgiven if it’s pointed at an adversary and in doing so, offer protection.
“Specifically, people seem to prefer friends to behave in ways that maximize the friendship benefits one receives both via direct behavior (how friends behave toward oneself) and indirect behavior (how friends behave toward others),” the study found.
Many friendship patterns — and the types of people we’re attracted to, as friends — begin in childhood, psychologists note.
Modern-day teens are exposed to more violence than in previous decades — and often it’s glamorized.
Also, mean kids can turn into that mean or even “vicious” adult.
“Often, but not always, it was those frequently mean kids who became cruel adults,” according to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s website.
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So how do parents create healthy patterns for their own kids when it comes to making friends?
Author and pediatrician Meg Meeker shared her reaction to the study findings with Fox News Digital (she was not involved in the study).
While friendships among children can be “complex,” she said, it’s more expected of adults to foster friendships that are “kind, trustworthy, honest and somewhat altruistic.”
“But this isn’t always the case,” said Meeker, who is based in Michigan. “The vicious friends can presumably serve to keep one protected from harm.”
She added, “After all, why else would one choose a friend with the ability to be mean?”
As a physician who has cared for thousands of teens, Meeker said there’s a reason why vicious friendships can arise in today’s social ecosystem.
“They prefer a vicious friend who would fight for them over a healthy friend who would refrain from harming another on their behalf.”
Modern-day teens are exposed to more violence than in previous decades — and often it’s glamorized, said Meeker.
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“Violence can even become ‘glamorous’ in a twisted way,” she said. “This is what we see with kids in gangs.”
She continued, “Violence toward another person seems normal [today], when 20 years ago it was considered horrendous.”
Meeker added that kids today also feel more “isolated and vulnerable.”
“When disconnected from the source of true protection and love [of] family or other healthy friends, they gravitate toward those who will ‘care for them’ by acting violent toward their enemy,” she said.
“In short, they prefer a vicious friend who would fight for them over a healthy friend who would refrain from harming another on their behalf,” she noted.
“This shows how vulnerable and needy kids are.”
Meeker suggested the “obvious problem” in this situation is that foul friends can turn around and point their anger toward those in their own circle at any time.
“This shows how vulnerable and needy kids are,” she said. “They are willing to take the risk that the vicious friend might turn on them in order to feel ‘protected’ and cared for by that friend.”
Meeker said that 40% of children in the U.S. struggle with depression — and that one of the “hallmarks” of the illness is self-contempt.
“Depressed teens turn their anger on themselves but often fail to realize it because it is subconscious,” she said.
“It makes sense, then, that kids who live with deep self-contempt would gravitate toward friends who don’t have their best interest at heart. And they are more comfortable with ‘friends’ who harbor mal-intent whether it is toward them or an enemy.”
For this reason, Meeker said, it is “more critical than ever” for parents and loved ones to “pay close attention” to their teens’ moods and the circle of friends they keep.
“The last thing that hurting kids need is unhealthy friendships,” she said.
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