We instinctively assume that a friendship is more than simply a relationship that is advantageous to us. However, some sociologists and psychologists would argue that a friendship is merely the result of a cost-benefit analysis that determined the relationship to be beneficial. While viewing relationships in such transactional terms seems sociopathic, we may all subconsciously be doing it anyways. According to Social Exchange Theory, the success of all relationships is determined by whether it results in mutual economic and social gain. Another similar theory known as Equity Theory hypothesizes that a positive relationship must have an equal ration of inputs and outputs.
When examining whether or not more exists to friendship than mutual self-interest, we may have to turn to philosophy. Many philosophers have written about friendship including Plato. Plato argues that friendship forms when two individuals are good (rational and virtuous), pleasant, or useful. While pleasant and useful friendships may exist for superficial reasons, friendships based on virtue seek solely the betterment of the other party. However, his argument for why this matters is because rationality and virtue lead to personal happiness. In this way, these friendships still rely upon instrumentality.
For these reasons, when considering whether friendship transcends symbiotic terms, it is important to examine friendships that are disadvantageous to us. Do we participate in such friendships? Or do we write off people whose acquaintance is economically or socially disadvantageous? Are people who accept such friendship simply fools? These are difficult questions that open up larger questions of the nature of love. Throughout numerous cultures and systems of belief, love is assumed to be something that transcends the physicality of science. I would argue that if this is true, there might in fact be far more to friendship and other types relationships than being merely self-serving. However, if it is not, theories like Social Exchange theory may possess the explanatory power to explain friendship as an evolutionary survival tactic. As someone who optimistically believes in the metaphysical nature of love, I do believe friendship is more than simply a cost-benefit analysis deemed beneficial. However, I have no conclusive evidence to prove that’s the case.