Humans long to bond with their peers -- a fundamental urge, which may be evolutionarily rooted. We are often in the company of other people, be it at school, work, or at home; if we're not, it can become a problem. A lack of human contact in one's life can have devastating effects on health, with one study finding loneliness is deadliner than obesity. Conversely, a large social network and a socially engaging life with members of that network are factors that predict overall health and subjective well‐being.
Jeffrey Hall, a professor of communications studies at the University of Kansas, is the author of the Communicate Bond Belong (CBB) theory, which proposes "that a social interaction operates within a homeostatic system, developed from internal pressures to satiate a need to belong, shaped by competing desires to invest and conserve social energy, and adaptable to new social circumstances and technological affordances." To satisfy this need, people invest time and energy into building bonds. Now, in the new research, Hall and colleagues quantified this temporal dimension, essentially learning how much time it takes, on average, for people's relationships to evolve.
A time for friendship
In one study, the researchers interviewed 355 adults who had relocated to a new city within the previous six months. This was a great demographic, since the participants were forced by circumstances to build a new social circle, essentially resetting their social setting. Each participant was asked to identify new persons that they had met, who weren't family members, romantic interests, or people they had previously met. The participants specified where they met the new person and how much time they spent together, on average, in a typical week. Each new person introduced to a social circle was rated on a scale from acquaintance to best friend.
A second study included 112 University of Kansas freshmen -- students who were exposed to many opportunities to meet new people and possibly befriend them. The students were asked to name two new acquaintances, and then report back to the researchers three times over the course of nine weeks of school how these relationships had changed.
For both studies, the researchers focused on identified so-called cut-off points, where there was a 50% likelihood that a relationship switched from acquaintance to casual, from casual to friend, or from friend to close friend. In terms of time, it took 50 hours of interaction to move from acquaintance to casual friend, 90 hours from casual friend to friend, and more than 200 hours for a person to fall in the 'best friend' frame. Acquaintances that had never moved up the social circle usually had spent fewer than 30 hours together.
The study suggests that time spent together with other people is a highly important metric to establishing meaningful connections. People who move to a new city for study or work and struggle making new friends might want to keep these findings in mind -- it shouldn't feel like work making friends, but it sure does take time.
The researchers also found that spending time together doesn't automatically turn two people into friends -- go figure. Some of the participants reported spending hundreds of hours with colleagues which were still classed as acquaintances at the end of the study. This usually happened when acquaintances didn't spend leisure time together (outside of school or work).
Hall says that having friends isn't just a life pleasure, it's also a necessity. Over the years, much research has shown that friends influence your happiness and habits — whether you’ll smoke or drink, work out, stay thin or become obese. The findings show that making friends is an investment that requires time and a bit of strategy (asking acquaintances to join you in leisure activities outside a formal environment). If you're the kind of person that struggles to make friends, besides social skills, you might want to evaluate how much free time you set aside every week for seeing friends and building relationships with the new people you've met.
The findings appeared in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.