Williams said previous research has consistently found that “kindness” is a trait people value highly in their friends. “But do we really want people to be maximally kind? Or do we just want them to be kind to us?” she asked.
Williams said that in a series of studies, she and her collaborators showed that people have preferences not just for how friends behave toward them, but also for how their friends behave toward other people. “We prefer friends who are kind and generous, sure...so long as they are more kind and generous to us than they are to others,” Williams explained. “And, sometimes, we want our friends to be vicious: when that malice is directed toward our rivals and enemies.
“These findings suggest that when researchers have studied friendship preferences in the past, the default has been linking those traits to the self. But friendship preferences are more nuanced than that; we also have preferences for how our friends behave towards others,” Williams said. “Future research can better understand what qualities we prefer in our friends by considering towards whom those qualities are directed.”