June 14, 2022
In this age of Facebook friends and Instagram followers, most people have more friends than they realize.
But how many of those virtual friends or followers are real friends?
How many friends do we actually have?
And, how many friends do we need?
With technology, and the ability to mass connect with others, our friendships have become more or less blurred. However, research shows the average person can have around 150 friendships.
You may be asking, where does the 150 come from?
Well, it has something to do with the size of our brains.
Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist and a specialist in primate behavior who studies social systems, identified a correlation between the size of the neocortex and the size of the average social group. According to him, the average person can juggle around 150 friendships at any time.
Within this group could be anyone from your brother or sister, a coworker, a significant other, and even the mailman you find yourself engaging with during his delivery.
But not all friendships are equal. Instead, your friendships are separated by varying levels of intimacy.
Think of your friendships as one big circle with multiple circles that expand from the inside out.
At the core, the inner circle would be considered your “support group” and consists of your most intimate relationships with around 3–5 people. This includes your significant other and the best friends you talk to regularly. These are the people you would seek help from in times of distress.
The next layer is considered your “sympathy group,” containing your close friends and family members. This group consists of about 9–15 people, and these are the people who would be sad if something were to happen to you.
Moving outward are your “meaningful relationships,” which include your allies and colleagues. This group can consist of around 20–50 people. These are people from work and people you can enjoy sharing pleasant experiences with.
The largest and most outer layer are our “active friendships,” which consist of about 90–150 people. These are our acquaintances, whom we know, but aren’t necessarily close with.
At each level, the number of people increases by about a factor of three. For example, suppose you have three close friends. In that case, you’d most likely have nine friends in your sympathy group, twenty-seven meaningful relationships, and so forth.
You may be wondering if we are only limited to about 150 relationships at a time, why do some people have hundreds, sometimes even thousands of Facebook friends?
The reality is that the number of Facebook friends may not be a good representation of one’s actual friendships.
You may recognize that your relationships with each person on your list are varied, yet, they are compartmentalized into the same group. Your Facebook friend group may include your parents, siblings, and coworkers. But also in that group are people you remembered taking a class with back in high school.
Unfortunately, social media tends to oversimplify our relationships.
But the critical difference between friends online and friends in real life is that actual friendships benefit both parties. Your Facebook friendships may not reflect your ideal relationships.
For friendships to last, both participants need to be there for each other, allow for vulnerabilities and show interest and empathy for the other person.
Online friends are effortless and tend to be nothing more than profile pics in a long list. While we may obsess about the number of friends we collect on social media, remember that we are social creatures whose well-being greatly depends on our interactions with real friends and others who are close to us.
Research says we can handle about 150, but this number can vary based on gender, culture, age, and an individual’s social bandwidth.
But remember that not all friends are equal. It’s normal to be invested in relationships with those closest to us while being passively invested in those who exist in our social community.
It’s good to remember that we are social creatures who need a community, and Dunbar’s number is a historical reflection of our social networks before the digital age.