A recent study has determined that only about half of the people you count among your friends feel the same way about you. The findings suggest that on one hand, social media is promoting an unsustainable number of friends as being the norm. On the other hand, we each seem to have a different definition of what friendship is and, thus, who our friends are.
We tend to believe that the people whom we count among our friends feel the same about us — it takes two, after all. But a recent MIT study found that this may not be the case at all.
In fact, only about 50% of perceived friendships are actually mutual. Researchers analyzed friendship ties in 84 subjects aged 23 to 84 taking part in a business management class. The participants were asked to rank each other person in the class by how close they felt to them. The scale went from 0 to 5, with 0 marked as “I do not know this person,” 3 symbolizing a “Friend,” and 5 being “One of my best friends.”
The team found a huge difference between the participants’ expectation and reality — while 94 percent of the subjects expected those they consider friends to feel the same way about them, only 53 percent actually reported them as friends, too.
The results of the study are, of course, limited in value on their own because of the tiny sample size. But, as Kate Murphy told the The New York Times, the team’s results line up consistently with previous studies on friendship done in the last decade. These found reciprocity rates between 34 to 53 percent, from a pool of over 92,000 subjects.
This gap between the number of perceived and reciprocated friendships could stem from the fact that we can’t clearly define what friendship is. Alex Pentland, a computational social science researcher and member of the MIT team behind the study, thinks that this difficulty arises because of our efforts to maintain a good self-image — a “We like them so they must like us” mentality. But that’s not how friends work.
“Ask people to define friendship – even researchers like Mr Pentland who study it – and you’ll get an uncomfortable silence followed by ‘er’ or ‘um,'” says Murphy.
Sadly, friends are becoming more of an investment or an achievement today. We try to make friends with people who might be able to help us advance in our careers or go to nice places and so forth, or we just “accept” friend number 2,355 on Facebook.
“Treating friends like investments or commodities is anathema to the whole idea of friendship,” said Ronald Sharp, professor of English at Vassar College, who teaches a course on the literature of friendship.
“It’s not about what someone can do for you, it’s who and what the two of you become in each other’s presence.”
Sharp believes that since the digital revolution, we’re spending more time tweeting or messaging our friends than actually hanging out with them, further altering our idea of what a healthy friendship looks like.
“People are so eager to maximise efficiency of relationships that they have lost touch with what it is to be a friend,” he says.
But hey, it’s not all bad news. If you cut your friend count down by half and end up with five true pals who really do love you back, you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be, says anthropologist Robin Dunbar. According to a recent study he led, while the average human can maintain 150 friendships with any degree of stability, we can only maintain 5 close friends at a time.
“People may say they have more than five but you can be pretty sure they are not high-quality friendships,” he told The Times.
So having a short list of friends on Facebook isn’t a sign that you’re doing something wrong. Quite the opposite, it may be the sign that you’re an expert at handling your social circle.
“We shouldn’t assume people with a high number of social ties are ‘influencers’,” Pentland writes for the Harvard Business Review. “Such people are no better, and often are worse than average people at exerting social influence. Our results suggest that this is because many of those ties either are not reciprocal or go in the wrong direction, and therefore won’t lead to effective persuasion.”
All those thousands of followers on Kardashian’s page? They don’t really amount to anything. If you’re looking for social change, go for small, close-knit groups of friends — they will support each other more than 40,000 Facebook friends ever will.
The paper, “Are You Your Friends’ Friend? Poor Perception of Friendship Ties Limits the Ability to Promote Behavioral Change” has been published online in the journal PLOS One.