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AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow Marisa Franco Studies Psychology of Friendship

Marisa Franco.

AAAS Science & Technology Fellow Marisa Franco is a research psychologist who wants to get the evidence-based wisdom of her field off the shelf and into the hands of people who can benefit from it, whether it’s in her present work in international development, or in her other professional interests, including the psychology of friendship.

That's why she left her position as assistant professor in counseling and psychology at Georgia State University in Atlanta last summer to become an STPF fellow for the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).

"I wanted to get experience in being more intentional about applying research to achieve social change," Franco says.

She is also exploring other ways to serve as a science communicator. She blogs regularly for Psychology Today, and she's written a book about friendship she's hoping to publish called "Platonic."

Franco was drawn to the topic of friendship, she says, because she herself has struggled at times to make and keep friends. After finding how much research exists on the topic, she wanted to share what she had learned with others. Reaching out is key, she says.

"People think friendship should happen organically, that you shouldn't have to reach out, but that's totally untrue. People who are able to initiate are less lonely," she says.

One study she found says that going regularly to class, church or your book club is a great way to make friends, because people tend to like people more every time they see them. That's one reason why people have traditionally joined bowling leagues or taken art classes, she says, but, she notes, many of those arenas are on the decline for adults.

Another tip is that people generally like us more than we think they do. Her advice for making friends is to be "very intentional about initiating with people. When you go out in the world, assume people like you and want to connect with you. Say, 'Do you want to hang out?' Just keep saying that, over and over."

Franco has shared these insights, and others, in a blog post. She says once we have friends, we shouldn't be afraid to rely on them either. People are social creatures who need each other. We need to talk over experiences with friends who know us in order to process our experiences, she says.

"A lot of the ways we think we are burdening other people are actually ways we build deep connections. Research shows that people feel closer to you when you're more vulnerable." The same is true about asking friends for support, she says. People who ask for support have more intimate relationships, and they're more likely to get support over time.

For her work with MCC, an independent agency Congress established in 2004, Franco is focused on projects that help empower people out of poverty with infrastructure projects like good roads and safe, convenient water supplies.

"One thing that drew me to MCC is that they focus on country ownership. That means we don't impose an intervention on a country. We work with them to bring about change," Franco says.

As an Executive Branch Fellow and a psychologist, she offers MCC a unique perspective — how human behavior can affect the success or failure of bricks-and-mortar projects. For example, bringing electricity to a region can make a big difference in the quality of life, but first, residents have to be willing and able to benefit from it. Do they want electricity in their lives? Can they access the program? Can they pay the bills? If not, "then the presence of electricity infrastructure alone won't change people's lives," Franco says. 

Before COVID-19, Franco was looking forward to trips she would take to help capture and blog about MCC's activities out in the field. But, days before she was scheduled to leave for Morocco for a workshop, AAAS cancelled foreign travel for safety reasons.

"I'm still grieving about that," she says.

Franco will extend her fellowship into 2021 and she is still hoping to get in-person experience in her second year. For the time being, her focus is on communicating MCC's activities and providing guidance remotely.

As for her science communication work, Franco's most recent blog posts for Psychology Today have focused on COVID-19. She has written about why some people don't seem to be taking the disease seriously (it's easy to channel fear and anxiety into denial); about helping friends grieve who have lost loved ones to the disease; and about how to support and protect the elderly and immunocompromised.

Ultimately, Franco wants to help research go where it matters most.

“I think academics think… ‘If we put this research out there, people will incorporate it into their lives.’ But that's not true. Somebody needs to be there in the process who can read it, understand it and integrate it into something more meaningful,” she says.

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Delia O'Hara