You Don't Have Many Friends Because Science

by Adrienne Vogt

You know how the song goes: "Make new friends, but keep the old"? Well, new research indicates that's not going to work: Your brain simply can't handle an expanded circle of close friends. In fact, says a new cross-university study, most people have only a few good friends. In other words, even if your actual friends change, the number of people you're close to probably won't.

Researchers at the University of Chester in the United Kingdom, and the University of Aalto in Finland, targeted two dozen young adults who were wrapping up high school and going on to either work or college — a time when your social circles tend to go through a serious shift. The study's leaders equipped the kids with pre-paid phone cards, and tracked how their calls evolved over the next year and a half.

What did they find? Well, as friends came and went, the subjects all kept a certain number of close confidantes, even though the actual people in that inner circle changed. The study noted that it's imperative for people to make new friends when they leave the others behind — say, if you move to a new city or start a new job — but that humans are creatures of comfort; they don't drastically change their number of close friends over time.

People focus a high proportion of their communication efforts on a small number of individuals, and this behavior persists even when there are changes in the identity of the individuals involved. Although social signatures vary between individuals, a given individual appears to retain a specific social signature over time.
Our results are likely to reflect limitations in the ability of humans to maintain many emotionally close relationships, both because of limited time and because the emotional “capital” that individuals can allocate between family members and friends is finite.

So listen up. If you're anything like us, you'll keep seeing people you know that have more than a thousand Facebook friends, as well as gazillions of Twitter followers. This'll make you feel suddenly, bizarrely, like a big fat loser.

This just ain't true.

But even though you can only have a few close friends, you can have loads of friends friends, right? Wrong. Past research has indicated it's near-impossible to have relationships with more than 150 people. (Which still seems like a stretch to me, because I have a hard enough time keeping tabs on my four best friends). This amount is known as the Dunbar Number, named after Robin Dunbar, who is the director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University.

Dunbar based this number on her studies with primates and the historical size of hunter-gatherer societies. And it holds up today, even though our networks are so much bigger and more spread out.

Friendship is tough work sometimes, but you've gotta love those crazy few you've got.

Image: Getty Images