It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.
“The way in which our social world is constructed is part and parcel of our biological inheritance. Together with apes and monkeys, we’re members of the primate family – and within the primates there is a general relationship between the size of the brain and the size of the social group. We fit in a pattern. There are social circles beyond it and layers within–but there is a natural grouping of 150. This is the number of people you can have a relationship with involving trust and obligation – there’s some personal history, not just names and faces.” (Robin Dunbar in The Observer, “We Can Only Every Have 150 Friends at Most…” March 14, 2010)
Zero is too little. 5,001 is too much. So how many friends is just right? Depends who you ask.
Grandma says you’re lucky if you can count them on one hand.
Anthropologist Robin Dunbar–who has defined a friend as “someone you care about and get in touch with least once a year”—says 150. The “Dunbar Number,” as it’s called, had—at least until Facebook came along and changed the world as we know it—become the accepted upper limit of how many social relationships an individual can maintain.
This number—or, merely, the concept that such a number exists—has become plenty important to me as I continue on my search. Think about it. If I meet someone who’s already hit her upper limit of friends, what will she want with me?
I see you, Miss Reader, sitting there behind your computer screen, internally screaming “It’s not so black and white! You can’t base friendships on a formula. Everyone should be open to new friends.” And you’re right, sorta. Because obviously no one consciously thinks or says, “Well, I’ve hit my BFF saturation, so sorry. No soup for you!” But people whose speed dials are filled to the brim with 312 area codes have plenty of Chicago BFFs—they hardly have time to see their existing close friends let alone make time for a new one.
Truth be told, there are plenty of people who consciously decide they’re not in the market for new buddies and I don’t begrudge them that. Making new friends takes energy and effort that some people need for other things.
One reader wrote me to tell the story of a woman she’d recently met who said—I swear!— “You’re a great person, so interesting and nice. But my life is full and I just don’t have the room for another friend.” It reminded me of a story I read about a journalist who met a potential friend at a dinner party. He told her he kept a strict “one in, one out” friend policy and was currently at capacity. Six months later she got a note that he was open for business. How sweet of him.
Obviously most people aren’t so bold (or rude) in stating their BFF vacancies. But there’s something to this Dunbar number. After all, of my 566 Facebook friends, I can count only about 115 that I might email or chat with over the course of a given year. The others are either people from way back when or acquaintances I’ve met but one or two times.
I talk a lot on this blog about how when it comes to friends, more is more. Quality and quantity. But you can go from connected to overextended. Sometimes more is too much.
Do you think there’s a limit to how may friends you can have? Have you ever found yourself thinking “I have too many friends as it is”? What do you think is the ideal number of friends?
A small bit of housekeeping. I was honored to guest post on Penelope Loves Lists this week. And my first Huffington Post piece went up yesterday! I’d be forever grateful if you’d check them out, comment, and do all that stuff you do so well.