The Hard Facts: Friends and Money Do Mix

“A study of 10,000 U.S. students over a period of 35 years suggests the wealthiest people are those that had the most friends at school. Each extra schoolfriend added 2% to the salary.” (BBC New Magazine, March 3, 2009)

There has been much discussion in the comments of this blog about how it is the quality of friendships, rather than the quantity, that is important. Yes. I think this is true. But I also can’t ignore the research I keep finding about how, when it comes to friends, more is more.

That there is actual evidence pointing to the concept that more friends in high school equals more money down the line is pretty remarkable. I know there are a lot of people who will take issue with it (Good! I love dialogue!), but before anyone gets too upset, it’s important to think about what “friend” means in this case.

Discussion about friendships often gets heated because we all define “friend” differently. Here’s what Merriam-Webster says: “One attached to another by affection or esteem.” That’s kind of broad. Then, it gives a synonym: Acquaintance. What?? Friend and acquaintance are entirely different! And this is the problem. You might think the friend title should only be bestowed upon those you would make dinner plans with, while I might think the label applies to anyone I would stop and chat with if I ran into them on the street. In both cases, I think the “attached by affection or esteem” definition would hold true.

Social psychologists often talk about three tiers of friendship: Let’s call them the BFFs, the friends, and the acquaintances. You might be able to maintain 100 acquaintances, but if you have 5 BFFs, you’re mighty lucky.

As for this study, I would argue it’s not really about friendship at all. It’s about popularity. Very different. Each student in the study (all of whom were male, I don’t know why) was asked to name his three best friends from his senior class. Those people whose names were listed the most  were considered the ones with the most friends.  Per the study, “One additional friendship nomination in high school is associated with a 2 percent higher wage 35 years later. This is roughly equivalent to almost half the gain from an extra year of education. Shifting somebody from the bottom fifth to the top fifth of the school popularity distribution – in other words, turning a social reject into a star – would be predicted to yield him a 10 percent wage advantage.”

It’s kind of crazy. What about the whole “the nerds will run the world” thing? But then, it’s not shocking that someone with good social skills—someone who more people consider a best friend—would make more money. To be in management positions, you need to be a bit of a people person. At least in theory.

The moral of the story: If you have kids, teach them good social skills now. Their bank accounts will thank you later.

How do you define “friend”? What makes one person deserving of friend title and another one not? Does this study seem bogus or totally logical? Surprising?

26 Comments

Filed under The Hard Facts

26 responses to “The Hard Facts: Friends and Money Do Mix

  1. hb

    So actually, it’s how many best friends you THINK you have. The people listed the names of their best friends…who knows if the people they named felt the same, or even spoke to them. In high school, friendships can be very fluid, and some kids even imagine people are their friends because they want them to be.

    I do believe in the ‘nerds rule the world’ theory, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have other nerd friends.

    As for what makes a friend: Is she/he there for you in bad times? Interested in your life? When you’ve lived through some crises in your life, you find out who the real friends are…and it is often surprising who is and who is not there when you need friends the most.

    • Well, it’s actually how many people think YOU are their best friend. regardless of whether you like them or not. Because the people who were counted to have the most friends are the ones whose names were nominated the most from each person’s list of three BFFs. That said, I think you are right that some people might nominate someone else as their best friend more out of hope than reality.

  2. This study bothers me. Mostly because they fail to address the cause and effect. I don’t think that just because a kid makes a lot of friends necessarily means he/she will earn more money. Rather, I’d argue there are certain personality traits that makes a person more likely to have a large group of friends AND more likely to have an increased earning potential down the road.

    To me, a friend is someone whose phone number is programmed into my phone and cannot be otherwise classified (i.e., work, doctor, service person, etc.). I have a pretty broad definition of friend. That said, I also go through my phone and delete numbers I no longer use. =)

  3. Lisa Z.

    I define a friend as someone that I have affection or an affinity for, which is kind of broad, I admit. I always assume that these people are going to feel the same way about me. I guess I believe that “love grows”. Sincere efforts to grow any kind of relationship generally are rewarded. Most people just want to be loved at the core, unless they are sociopaths or someother such personality disorder, which are quite common, as I have found.

    I find this study logical. The ability to have a broad network of people who respect you will generally pay dividends in most fields of work, I believe.

  4. I also think that people with more money have more leisure time to make friends. Kids who don’t grow up with much money often times have after school jobs and therefore not as much time to socialize. Same goes for being grown up. A person working two jobs isn’t going to be able to meet friends for drinks. Or, even afford the expensive drinks/dinner/movies that friends do together. Those on a budget tend to stay home more. It’s cheaper.

  5. Not a fan of this study. Especially since it focuses on high school. I think high school relationships tend to be so superficial. The most popular kids from my high school have not been the most successful people – at all. In fact, very few of them went on to obtain a degree. They live in our same small town, married each other, and hang out at the local bar every night. My situation might be different since I grew up in a teeny, tiny town in the middle of nowhere, North Dakota.

    If the study is referencing post-high school relationships, I’d be more apt to agree with it. College and post-collegiate relationships are different than high school friendships in my opinion.

    I think there is some correlation between your ability to form friendships and your success in life. Success in life requires social intelligence. Sustaining life-long friendships requires social intelligence. I can see the link between the # of friends & your success since success often requires maintaining a network… But there’s something to be said for the depth of a relationship. I’d rather have 3 best friends rather than 100 ‘friends’, however you define the relationship.

    Interesting concept, though.

    • Yes, I’ve been thinking about this same thing regarding high school relationships. But then, I wonder if the “cool” kids really were the popular ones, by its most true definition. As in, the captain of the football team might be considered “cool” or called popular, but if everyone in his class had to report their 3 BFFs, how many of the lists would he actually make?

      And yes, high school and college relationships are SO different.

  6. When thinking back to my HS graduating class, I can certainly imagine the most well-liked, involved students going on to be strong leaders and money-makers, and also the ones who had great hair. It makes sense that those social skills would transfer.

    Still, it’s bizarre that this study involves only men. To what degree do women socialize differently, I wonder? A study on the impact of friendships in women’s business lives would be interesting.

    • Hair does help. There are so many fascinating studies about physical appearance and money (short guys, if I remember correctly, really get screwed).

      I can’t imagine why they would only include men. Women do socialize differently–or at least have different friendship needs– so I can’t quite figure out why they did it this way. The only thing I can think is that when they started, some 35 years ago, women were less career-driven and always made less money anyway?

  7. Leanne

    So basically the goal here is to be a social nerd? Awesome. That I can do!

    But seriously, I thought at first this all made sense because who do you get your job assistance or marketing assistance from when you first start in the working world? Friends! And the more you had to start, the more possibilities you have for directions to go and hook ups when you get there. Totally makes sense to me.

    However, Ali B’s comment about how wealthy people have more time to make friends seems legit as a gross discrepancy in the study. Privileged people take time doing more things and meeting more people because they aren’t working a bunch of jobs, and they meet other rich people and hook each other up and get richer. Voila! Greater salaries in life!

    Interesting subject, R. Nice find. :)

  8. This definitely makes sense if you think about it. There’s the old saying that it’s not what you know but who you know, and I’m sad to say that I’ve definitely seen this play out in the business world time and time again. If someone was popular in high school, that probably translates into their ability to network later in life.

    This doesn’t entirely negate the idea of the nerds ruling the world though – there’s a lot of nerds in the White House right now (I say this in a nice, endearing way) and they probably make less money than a lot of corporate folks.

    There, I’ve used my Sociology degree for a few minutes. Personally this study does bug me because as an unpopular and nerdy teen, I did always cling to the hope that we nerds would do better for ourselves someday.

  9. Jackie

    What an interesting study! I’m so glad you took the time to report it Rachel.

    I imagine that the study only used men because of the difference in pay between men and women. That’s just a guess. But, how does it work for women then? Are we to assume the same thing? That having more people think you are their friend(probably easier for women to do than men) in high school means you may earn more later in life than you would have, had you not had those friends in high school? But regardless of how many friends you had and how much more money you can make because of them, it’s (in many cases) still not as high as a man would, friends or not? So although women are probably better social butterflys than men, their earnings as a group are less. It doesn’t make sense. So I need these researchers to make a part 2 of this study on women. Or am I crazy to think that women as a group are more social than men as a group?

    Also, you will never find me using acquaintance as a synonym for friend. That’s just silly. Somebody should tell Merriam-Webster that they’re not REALLY the same things.

    • You’re right the gender thing here is weird. My only guess, as I mentioned above, is that when the high school kids were chosen it was the mid-1970s (the study followed them for 35 years and was reported in 2009) and women were, as you say, making so much less money that they couldn’t control for that factor. Or something.

      I don’t think you’re crazy to think that women are more social than men, but I will try to find out and report back!

  10. TJ

    I like your research Wednesdays! This is interesting, and I can see how people who others rate as a good friend in high school might be people who have proven themselves over the 4 years of high school to be dependable, fun, and caring folks–all of which make for a good employee. I’d be interested, too, to see if the same holds true for women.

  11. This one surprises me. Perhaps I was jaded but I always thought the popular crew in high school might have peaked early in life, leaving room for those of us who were late bloomers. I still tend to think it’s quality of friends over quanitiy – otherwise I start to worry that my life and weekends don’t look quite like that Coors Light commercial with me and 50 of my closest friends.

    But I absolutely agree you have to have the social skills to go far. But social intellegence does not necessarily translate to a bigger bank account – that’s called financial common sense and living within your means.

  12. It’s funny you mention this study now. I’m taking a Marketing class this semester, and we discussed how having a network (a lot of friends, or at least acquaintances that like you) will net you a lot of business in different ways, either by referrals and sales or by recommending you for positions (bypassing the HR & resume process somewhat). Think about how many times you’ve heard about different videos, books, products, or hot ideas from a friend, who heard it from their friend, who learned about it from . . .

    It would be interesting to reproduce the study now with new college grads (male and female) and get results 30 years down the road.

  13. Janet

    to me, a friend is someone with whom you have a real connection (and that can be defined many ways), a connection that has been reaffirmed over years and/or experiences together. an acquaintance, on the other hand, is simply someone you know, usually only slightly, which i interpret as superficially.

  14. Facebook changed the whole definition of Friend for our society, didn’t it? Many people have a bijillion friends on FB, and yet they might still be awfully lonely on Saturday nights. But I think it’s also a hopeful thing–it gives those of us who might be a little more nerdy or boring or shy the chance to broaden our little circle a bit.

    I would define Friend as someone who I can trust…someone I can be goofy with…someone I can ugly-cry with…someone who is honest and decent…and someone who can tell me if I look fat in these jeans–kindly. That narrows the ol’ list of friends on FB right down!

  15. anonymous

    Bill Gates? Or Mark Zuckerberg from FB who spent his time on a computer…how many friends could he he had? How about people who were bullied for their intelligence and potential in high school but were later successful? It’s not all black and white.

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