Dunbar’s number: 150 friends is our limit

It seems like it is pretty easy to collect hundreds of friends on Facebook. Between people we know from years of schools plus jobs plus other activities, the number can increase quickly. But having a large number of online “friends” goes against Dunbar’s number:

Most of Dunbar’s research has focused on why the GORE-TEX model was a success. That model is based on the idea that human beings can hold only about 150 meaningful relationships in their heads. Dunbar has researched the idea so deeply, the number 150 has been dubbed “Dunbar’s Number.”

Ironically, the term was coined on Facebook, where 150 friends may seem like precious few…

Dunbar has found 150 to be the sweet spot for hunter-gatherer societies all over the world. From the Bushmen of Southern Africa to Native American tribes, a typical community is about 150 people. Amish and Hutterite communities — even most military companies around the world — seem to follow the same rule.

The reason 150 is the optimal number for a community comes from our primate ancestors, Dunbar says. In smaller groups, primates could work together to solve problems and evade predators. Today, 150 seems to be the number at which our brains just max out on memory.

Dunbar goes on to suggest that larger organizations then have to find ways to create smaller groups where people can still maintain connections with others.

I’ve thought for a while that Facebook should move away from saying that all people you are connected to are “friends.” This indicates a closeness that I suspect doesn’t really exist in many of these online relationships. They are probably more like “acquaintances” or “people you have interacted with.” But, imagine what would happen if someone you thought was a friend marks you an acquaintance or vice versa. Additionally, by calling everyone a friend, you are suggesting that you are open to a broader set of relationships and Facebook is interested in bringing more people together. If we wanted to get more sociological, we might call these “strong” and “weak” ties but this seems fairly impersonal.

Figures from a few years ago suggested that people had an average of 120 Facebook friends. This still seems like a lot even as sociological research from 2006 (read the full study here) suggests that Americans have fewer confidants and less contact with existing confidants:

In 1985, the average American had three people in whom to confide matters that were important to them, says a study in today’s American Sociological Review. In 2004, that number dropped to two, and one in four had no close confidants at all…

The percentage of people who confide only in family increased from 57% to 80%, and the number who depend totally on a spouse is up from 5% to 9%, the study found. “If something happens to that spouse or partner, you may have lost your safety net,” Smith-Lovin says.

Here are two tentative hypotheses regarding this data:

1. Younger Facebook users are more likely to have higher numbers of friends. This seems to be driven by being students in high school and college where it is common to friend lots of people across a broad swath of classroom, social activity, and living situations.

2. Older Facebook users are more uncomfortable with the term “friends” to describe online relationships. Of course, as the younger generation ages and is used to such terms, the term will become more normal.

Sociologists’ claim: interactions with others is how religion leads to greater life satisfaction

A new study in the American Sociological Review looks at why religious people have higher levels of life satisfaction. The conclusion: it is about the networks that form among people who attend services.

Here is a short description of the study:

Many studies have uncovered a link between religion and life satisfaction, but all of the research faced a “chicken-and-egg problem,” Lim said. Does religion make people happy, or do happy people become religious? And if religion is the cause of life satisfaction, what is responsible — spirituality, social contacts, or some other aspect of religion?

Lim and his colleague, Harvard researcher Robert Putnam, tackled both questions with their study. In 2006, they contacted a nationally representative sample of 3,108 American adults via phone and asked them questions about their religious activities, beliefs and social networks. In 2007, they called the same group back and got 1,915 of them to answer the same batch of questions again.

The surveys showed that across all creeds, religious people were more satisfied than non-religious people…

But the satisfaction couldn’t be attributed to factors like individual prayer, strength of belief, or subjective feelings of God’s love or presence. Instead, satisfaction was tied to the number of close friends people said they had in their religious congregation. People with more than 10 friends in their congregation were almost twice as satisfied with life as people with no friends in their congregation.

A few thoughts based on the description of this study:

1. This would seem to support arguments within faith traditions, such as evangelicalism, about the need for religious community.

2. The study suggests these friendships form around “a sense of belonging to a moral faith community.” This sounds like Durkheim and his ideas about people coming together and forming a collective.

3. This sounds like a worthwhile study because it helps explain the causal mechanism between greater life satisfaction and religion: it is about friendships. But, this doesn’t say much about how these friendships lead to greater life satisfaction. Is it because there is someone to share one’s burdens with? Is it because these friends provide spiritual guidance?

4. Are there substitutes for this kind of boost to life satisfaction? That is, are there functionally equivalent things people could do to get the same benefits that religious people get from friendships with people who share their faith?

5. The findings were primarily about the large American religious groups: “Catholics and mainline and evangelical Protestants.” Would these findings hold for other groups in America? Would they hold in other countries?

Race as a lesser factor in forming friendships on Facebook

A new study in the American Journal of Sociology finds that a shared racial identity was less important than several other factors when making friends on Facebook:

“Sociologists have long maintained that race is the strongest predictor of whether two Americans will socialize,” said Andreas Wimmer, the study’s lead author and a sociologist at UCLA…

In fact, the strongest attraction turned out to be plain, old-fashioned social pressure. For the average student, the tendency to reciprocate a friendly overture proved to be seven times stronger than the attraction of a shared racial background, the researchers found…

Other mechanisms that proved stronger than same-race preference included having attended an elite prep school (twice as strong), hailing from a state with a particularly distinctive identity such as Illinois or Hawaii (up to two-and-a-half times stronger) and sharing an ethnic background (up to three times stronger).

Even such routine facts of college life as sharing a major or a dorm often proved at least as strong, if not stronger, than race in drawing together potential friends, the researchers found.

Interesting findings – perhaps Facebook is a new world or younger generations don’t pay as much attention to race.

Additionally, it is interesting to read about the methodology of the study which took place at a school where 97% of students had Facebook profiles and the sociologists measured friendships in terms of photo tagging (and not who were actually listed as “friends”).

A couple of questions I have: is behavior on Facebook and choosing friends reflective of actual social patterns in the real world? Is there a selection issue going on here  – not all students or people of this age use Facebook so are college students who use Facebook already more likely to form cross-racial friendships?

The “friendship paradox” and the spread of disease

The social dimensions of diseases and medical conditions continue to draw research attention, particularly for those interested in mapping and understanding fast-spreading illnesses. A recent study, undertaken by a sociologist and medical geneticist/political scientist, explores how the flu spreads:

The persons at the center of a social network are exposed to diseases earlier than those at the margins states the paradox. Again, your friends are probably more popular than you are, and this “friendship paradox” may help predict the spread of infectious disease. However, Christakis and Fowler found that analyzing a social network and monitoring the health of members is an optimal way to predict a wave of influenza, detailed information simply doesn’t exist for most social groups, and producing it is time-consuming and expensive…

[Sociologist Nicholas] Christakis states: We think this may have significant implications for public health. Public health officials often track epidemics by following random samples of people or monitoring people after they get sick. But that approach only provides a snapshot of what’s currently happening. By simply asking members of the random group to name friends, and then tracking and comparing both groups, we can predict epidemics before they strike the population at large. This would allow an earlier, more vigorous, and more effective response.

This sounds like it has more promise than recently proposed techniques like monitoring Google searches or Twitter feeds.

Additionally, more and more research suggests that monitoring and analyzing social networks is critical for understanding the complex world. Rather than simply examining individuals, we now have some tools to map and model more complex social relationships.

The lonely American

Research shows that we might be more lonely than ever. Daniel Askt sums up some of the research:

In America today, half of adults are unmarried, and more than a quarter live alone. As Robert Putnam showed in his 2000 book Bowling Alone, civic involvement and private associations were on the wane at the end of the 20th century. Several years later, social scientists made headlines with a survey showing that Americans had a third fewer nonfamily confidants than two decades earlier. A quarter of us had no such confidants at all.

In a separate study, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, authors of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives (2009), surveyed more than 3,000 randomly chosen Americans and found they had an average of four “close social contacts” with whom they could discuss important matters or spend free time. But only half of these contacts were solely friends; the rest were a variety of others, including spouses and children.

The rest of the piece is a thought-provoking rumination on friendship, particularly among men.