This column will change your life: With friends like these... | Oliver Burkeman

I like my close friends a lot – that's the point of close friends, surely – and yet, on an almost daily basis, they appal me. I have a friend who thinks voting is a waste of time, and one who believes, sincerely, that musical theatre is a legitimate art form; I have another friend who treats any arrangement to meet at a given time and place as an amusing hypothesis, an approximation of something he might, or might not, actually end up doing. What's especially odd is that every time I encounter these traits, I'm shocked afresh.

It's generally held that friends are people with whom we choose to forge relationships because we find their specific personalities agreeable, or similar to our own, and yet experience regularly contradicts this. What is a friend, really? "All that one can safely say… is that a friend is someone one likes and wishes to see again," writes Joseph Epstein, fumbling for a definition in his book Friendship: An Exposé. "Though," he adds archly, "I can think of exceptions and qualifications even to this innocuous formulation."

The truth is that we don't know our friends nearly as well as we imagine. Numerous studies show that we tend to assume our friends agree with us – on politics, ethics, etc – more than they really do. The striking part is that the problem doesn't appear to lessen as a friendship deepens: when the researchers Michael Gill and Bill Swann questioned students sharing rooms, they found that, as time passed, people became ever more confident in the accuracy of their judgments about the other, and yet, in reality, the judgments grew no more accurate. Two people might become dear friends (or romantic partners), yet remain ignorant about vast areas of each other's inner lives.

This seems strange, until you consider, as Drake Bennett put it in the Boston Globe, that "many of the benefits that friendship provides don't necessarily depend on perfect familiarity; they stem instead from something closer to reliability". Friendship may be less about being drawn to someone's personality than about finding someone willing to endorse your sense of your own personality: in agreeing to keep you company, or lend an ear, a friend provides the "social-identity support" we crave. You needn't be a close match with someone, nor deeply familiar with their psyche, to strike this mutual deal. And once a friendship has begun, cognitive dissonance helps keep it going: having decided that someone's your friend, you want to like them, if only to confirm that you made the right decision. We don't want to know everything about our friends, Gill and Swann suggest: what we seek is "pragmatic accuracy". We don't base friendships on what we learn about people; we decide what to learn about people, and what to ignore, based on having decided to be friends.

Perhaps this sounds chillingly narcissistic – friendship exposed as a self-serving ruse in which it doesn't matter who your friends are so long as they agree to the role, presumably for their own equally egotistical reasons. Or perhaps there's something moving about the notion of friendship as an agreement to keep each other company, overlook each other's faults and not probe too deeply in ways that might undermine the friendship. It's somewhat lacking in the cheesy proverb department, but perhaps a true friend is someone who doesn't ask many awkward questions.

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