What God, your stalker, and your best friend have in common

The science of friendship has some unusual applications. 

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Aristotle famously said you cannot be friends with an inanimate object. He did not, it seems, anticipate the iPhone. So what are the limits of friendship?

Are imaginary friends… real friends? Is a dog actually a man’s best friend? Can you be friends with God? And what about delusional stalkers? In Ian McEwan’s novel Enduring Love, the stalker believes he is in love with and a friend of the man whom he is causing so much distress. 

Professor Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at Oxford University, has worked extensively on the science of friendship. Her has speculated that the very same mechanisms that lead to friendship explain all these different phenomena. 

This mechanism is called “mentalising” and is based on the extensive “theory of mind”. In layman’s terms- it’s our ability to put ourselves in the shoes of someone else. It is how we know our friend is joking, or when they are sad.  Studies have shown that people with better abilities to mentalise, have more friends. 

Dunbar tells me this ability to mentalise is why we enjoy TV shows, books and films. These mediums “require us to be able to imagine fictional worlds and become completely immersed in them”.

Dunbar goes on to say that "pushed far enough this capacity to imagine as real what is not real looks suspiciously like delusional states and certain forms of stalking".

Friendship is rarely considered in these terms. To most of us, friendship is a natural state of being, often effortless. We just click with some people. And yet the reality is far more complicated. 

A study published in 2016 asked 84 students to rate their friend from one to five (with one being “I don’t know this person, to five being “my best friend”). The participants were then asked how they thought the person they were rating would rate them on that scale. They found that only 53 per cent accurately judged what rating their friend would give their friendship. 

While the study was based on a small sample, and arguably tried to quantify a very hard to quantify topic, it shows that what we define as friendship is not so straightforward. 

Dr David James, a consultant forensic scientist, notes that certain stalkers, especially those with schizophrenia, have a delusional system in which "the clearest language of a rejection may be seen as containing hidden messages of affection".

He recalls one instance with a deluded stalker who commented that when he was told to "fuck off", he believed that as it contained the word "fuck" it must "therefore be a signal of sexual desire". 

Other stalkers, James says, may just be socially inept and unable to grasp that their approaches are unwanted, while others still may just be so narcissistic that they cannot imagine someone not wanting to be followed by them.  

Faith in God, may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about friendship, but Dunbar posits that the ability to "form perfectly natural relationships with those in the spiritual world" is just a "special case of a wider phenomenon of how we build all relationships". 

Professor Peter Atkinson, the Reverend at Worchester Cathedral and the author of the book Friendship and the Body of Christ jokes about the 16th century mystic Teresa of Ávila, who says to God: “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.”

At least in the Bible, according to Atkinson, there is a “degree of argumentation” between the likes of Abraham, Moses and Job with God. He is argued with, as you would argue with a friend. 

Forming a relationship with God, like making a new friend, is not based in logic says Dunbar, but rather is "more emotional and intuitive". Faith in God does of course differ in one major way to friendship. Losing faith in your friend does not mean you stop believing they exist.

Dunbar says that friendship, as with all relationships, requires a “balance between our rosy image and reality”. In reality our real friends often bring us back to reality by their behaviour. 

And yet the line between being a friend and stalker is perhaps blurrier than we'd like to think. Who among us hasn’t fallen into the trap of cyberstalking someone when they ignore our messages? We all have people who think they’re closer friends with us, than we are with them. 

Jason Murugesu is a postgraduate student in science communication at Imperial College London, and a former Wellcome Scholar at the New Statesman.