You Can Only Have This Many Friends At A Time, Science Says

Written by Emi Boscamp

When it comes to friends, the more, the better, right? If one can't make it in a crisis, another one's always got your back. In fact, a recent study said that people with larger social circles are better at handling not just emotional pain but physical pain, too. Back in the 1990s, the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar discovered that the bigger a primate's brain, the larger its social group.

And that may very well be true, but new research says that having a massive #squad, to put it in Taylor Swift terms, is not actually possible. Like, Swift may think she's best friends with Selena Gomez, Lily Aldridge, Gigi Hadid, Karlie Kloss, and all 75.8 million of her Instagram followers, but science begs to differ.

Most of us can only maintain five close relationships at a time.

Dunbar predicted famously that human beings can only maintain meaningful relationships with between 100 to 230 other people, and that number is typically 150 (now known as Dunbar’s Number). And it’s been shown to hold true in all kinds of situations—from ancient armies to modern social networks.

But Dunbar also suggested that those relationships are layered according to the strength of emotional ties. He argues that people typically have five super-close friendships, then 10 slightly less cozy companions, 35 at more distance, and then 100 in an outer circle. Now, he and fellow researchers have published new data that adds support to that theory.

Assuming that the frequency of calls between two individuals is a measure of the strength of their relationship, the results are based on six billion phone call records from 2007 made by 35 million people somewhere in Europe.

The data that remained after screening out business calls and those who don't use their phones to make social calls was then clustered, to figure out whether there was layering in friendship closeness. They found that, unsurprisingly, the clusters match up pretty well to Dunbar’s predictions, with 4.1 in the first layer, 6.9 in the next, then 18.8, and finally 99.1.

The team also found some evidence of an extra layer among certain people. “This could, for example, mean introverts and extroverts have a different number of layers of friends,” they said. But fascinatingly, extroverts, who tend to have more friends, still have a similar number of layers.

But remember that this study's data came from 2007—back before everyone had a smartphone, friending your preschool crush on Facebook was standard practice, and double-tapping on Instagram became impulsive. Have these technologies helped us stay closer with more people? Or are they just adding an excess amount of people onto our outermost layer of relationships? That's a study for another time.

(Technology Review)

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