Dunbar’s Number, Facebook, and the Friendship Paradox

Written by Carl Davidson, Director of Strategy and Insight, Research First

How many ‘friends’ do you have on Facebook? If you’re like most people then you’ll probably have more than 150. Perhaps many more. The problem is that the research is clear that this means that you’re unlikely to have a meaningful relationship with all of these ‘friends’.

The 150 limit is known as “Dunbar’s Number” and comes from a range of studies that shows most people can maintain about 150 social relationships at any one time. By ‘relationship’ Robin Dunbar (who the number is named after) means “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar". The interesting thing is that the research shows this number has been stable across time, and seems to be a cognitive limit rather than one of connection. In other words, social media is as limited by Dunbar’s Number as were the villages in the Domesday Book.

If anything, the immediacy and the scale of Facebook makes things worse rather than better. By all estimates, Facebook was the first website in the world to achieve one trillion page views in a single month; on a typical day over 350 million photos are uploaded to the site; half of Facebook’s users log on every day; and half of the users aged 18-34 check Facebook minutes after waking up. There is little doubt that Facebook is a phenomenon, and it’s clearly hard for many people to imagine life without it.

However, you may want to look elsewhere for your friends. An Australian study of Facebook users found that ‘neurotic and lonely’ people spent more time on Facebook than non-lonely individuals (in a clever play on words The Atlantic reported this research in an article by asking ‘Is lonely making us Facebook?’). The Australian study also found that Facebook users scored higher on narcissism and exhibitionism than non-Facebook users. Even those users who start out with a well-developed sense of self may have this undermined by the use of Facebook according to a study from the University of Michigan.

While this reads like an indictment of Facebook, in reality there is much more going on here. For instance, it is no real surprise to social scientists that the use of Facebook undermines users’ wellbeing. An important contributor to how good we feel is our assessment of how strong our social networks are relative to other people we know. Yet the chances are that many of your ‘friends’ on Facebook have more friends than you. Indeed, a recent study of Facebook found that users had an average of 190 friends while their friends averaged 635 friends. How is this possible?

This occurs because of what is known as the ‘friendship paradox’. In this paradox, the average number of friends any one person has is probably less than the average number of friends that their friends have. Like all paradoxes, it makes no sense at first but the logic is straightforward: People with more friends are more likely to be your friend in the first place and they are also more likely to show up disproportionately in any set of friends. As the New York Times notes, this paradox explains why most people ‘experience airplanes, restaurants, parks and beaches to be more crowded than the averages would suggest [because] when they’re empty, nobody’s there to notice’.

Social scientists also tend to go easy on Facebook because it appears to be much more a symptom of (or reaction to) broader social trends rather than the cause of them. The nature and strength of social ties are changing, the number of people living alone is increasing (in New Zealand nearly one in four households is a person living alone), and feelings of loneliness are on the rise across the Western world. The easiest way to see this is to chart the growth of the so-called ‘caring industries’ – the social workers, the clinical psychologists, the marriage counsellors, the family therapists, the life coaches etc. Somehow we created a social world where many people need to pay professionals to listen to their everyday problems.

This is what the critics of Facebook mean when they say we live in a world where people are better connected but lonelier than ever; and where social media broadens social ties but also trivialises many of them.

However, the research is clear that a powerful antidote to loneliness is to spend more time socialising face-to-face and less time doing so online. Which is why Robin Dunbar’s work is so useful today: It reminds us all to choose our 'friends' carefully and to make sure we treat them well. In the end the quality of your friendships counts for much more than the number of ‘friends’ you can count.

Research First is the research partner for PRINZ. Visit them at www.researchfirst.co.nz.

Image credit: iStock