The Hard Facts: What’s Your Number?

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.


Filed under 21st Century Friendships, The Hard Facts

24 responses to “The Hard Facts: What’s Your Number?

  1. JenD

    Yeah, uh, I’ve never been in the position of having too many friends…not even in high school, when I had two completely different groups of friends who didn’t quite mesh (school friends/non-school friends). I don’t think it’s possible to be too rich or have too many friends. Some people like things nice and tidy, I guess. Either that, or maybe they only have 6 place settings and don’t want to leave any one of their friends out of a dinner party. Yes, some peeps are *that* anal!

  2. I think this is fascinating. Not just the Dunbar #, which has always made sense to me, but how we each have a number of people that instinctively feels right to be close to. I have lots of friends but very very few I feel absolutely emotionally comfortable with. I think this predisposition varies between people though.

  3. I think there’s definitely people out there who have hit their limit on the number of friendships they can possibly maintain. I have a casual acquaintance like that – she’s a friend of a friend of my boyfriend’s, so I see her from time to time if we all happen to be at the same party or something, but she seriously never has time to hang out with our little group because she has so many other little groups that she’s connected to. I don’t think she’s closed off from new friendships per se, but practically and logistically, it just doesn’t work out.

    I think the number is different for everyone, and it also depends on what kind of friends you’re counting. I went to a wedding this weekend where the bride had 7 bridesmaids, and I kept thinking that I don’t know 7 girls who I would actually want in my wedding. Not that I’m not friends with that many girls, but I can’t imagine being that close with that many. Really, who does have the time for that?

    Incidentally, even after several years in Chicago, I only have one friend here who actually has a 312 number. I’m sure you’re open to the 773s, 708s, 630s, 847s, etc. out there too – but it struck me as a little funny, no doubt in a nerdy sort of way.

    • That’s so funny. I am an 847 (cell) and 773 (home). I just felt like 312 is the quintessential Chitown area code. (Like the old school NYC 212.) They’re hard to come by if you haven’t been living here forever. A badge of honor!

      • haha! Rachel, they will take my 312 cell area code from me when they pry it from my cold dead fingers! 😉 (can you tell I’m born and raised here? I remember what an uproar there was when they first introduced 708!)

      • It is, but I think of 312 as people who live downtown, which I’ll probably never be fortunate enough to do, hence I chose a 773 number. A majority of my friends here grew up out in the ‘burbs, and still have their old suburban numbers. I’m kind of an anomaly among my friends for living in the city and actually having a city number.

  4. Christina

    As an introvert, I prefer the “less is more” approach to friends.

    While it’s painful for me to lose a friend, because it can leave a pretty big gap in my social calendar, too many friends is exhausting.

    When I have experienced the “more is more” realm, I feel exactly like Joel Epstein who wrote about it in his book, “Friendship, An Expose”… it begins to feel less like friendship and more like an obligation.

  5. What an interesting thing to think about. I have no answers, I tend to be with you, there is space for quality and quantity and each provide their own benefits. I have friends who I would give ANYTHING to (time, money, anything) and those I just plain enjoy being around but don’t have a lot to give to (does that make any sense?). I think the number changes based on life circumstances. Early on in my my marriage for example, the number was low. I was focused on my husband and spending as much time with him as possible. When I became a mother a needed LOTS, to hear lots and lots of friends tell me it would get easier, to be out and enjoying myself as often as I could. Now I’m looking for balance, but mostly connection. Ironically I’m finding a lot of here, online, so how does that affect the equation?

  6. At first glance, that number seems so high. Especially when i can’t think of anyone to call if I want to go for a coffee! But on closer inspection, it seems pretty bang on when you start counting family, close friends over the years, some co-workers and your spouse’s family and friends. I wouldn’t use the terms ‘trust and obligation’ necessarily, but definitely personal history. Interesting…


  7. I tend to prefer small groups in general–so although I have many acquaintances, I have few close friends. I also notice that my brain capacity begins to burst if I am keeping track of too many friends’ lives. I can be friendly with everyone in the world–but nitty-gritty personal only with the handful that I know well.

  8. I am not opposed to meeting new friends, but it’s sort of unlikely for me to make a new ‘best friend’ that I will see on a very regular basis. I feel like I have trouble seeing the girlfriends I have so adding another person to the mix might be tough. That sounds sort of snobbish to say, though, because it makes me sound like I think I am SO popular.

  9. Wow… stating whether or not you’ve got a “vacancy” for a friend? That sounds so strange to me — like you’re filling a headcount for your job or something!

    I do tend to prefer quality over quantity when it comes to friends. But. for me it has less to do with numbers of friends, than with how high- or low-maintenance each friend is. Even in my current state, where nearly all of my friends have left town and I’m actively seeking more, I might not want to take on a potential friend who’s going to call me every day and want to talk for hours. I just don’t have that kind of time — nothing against her personally.

  10. GUILTY as CHARGED! But, it’s not an intentional thing. When you’ve lived in the same city for 14 years (gulp), you meet A LOT of people. I was always REALLY REALLY GOOD about keeping in touch with everyone. And then, one day, I realized that not every friendship is created equal. And I was giving to some friendships a helluva lot more than I was getting back. So, I did a very purposeful cleansing of my friends. I wasn’t rude or callous to anyone. I just stopped calling, stopped emailing, stopped being the one to invite. It was amazing to see how many of those people didn’t even notice (and whom I never heard from). These days, I have a small inner circle of people I see frequently. And then a somewhat larger group of random friends I think fondly of, but don’t see more than a few times a year. It’s not that I’m closed off to new friendships (one of the people I socialize the most with now is one of my newest friends), but I don’t seek them out the way I used to. Another way of putting it is, if they come to me, I’m open to them, but I’m not out there seeking them.

  11. Megan

    I think it depends on the kinds of friendships you want to have. If you’re looking for close,, intimate friendships, it seems like the more you have, the cheaper they are (and the less, well, intimate they are). If, you’re wanting social time and hang-out spontaneity, I actually don’t think there’s a limit. You know, like with intelligence and how much the brain can do/remember/learn…It all depends on what you’re looking for (which may be, in part, be determined by ‘how you’re wired’ so to speak, though I’m more of a believer in free will than ape ancestry myself…).

  12. I’m open to new friendships as long as it’s not too hard or too much work. Does that sound callous? E-mail, text, tweet? A drink, meal, lecture, benefit, show? Yes to all. But I have limits as to time, place, drama (something I happily avoid) because, well, these days and nights are numbered. I happily respond when someone reaches out. I reach out to others, but without getting anything back, I quickly lose interest.

  13. Michele

    I do think there is a limit to the amount of close relationships you can maintain. I can’t see myself thinking “I have TOO many friends” but I think it would be difficult to really bond and be close with a huge number of people.

  14. Great articles across the board. Love that Penelope blog too.

    I come from a huge family so a lot of my numbers are built-in (my cousin, for example, is my #1 BFF) but I’d say 4-5 is the number of friends I’d trust with my life. That’s it.

  15. Eva

    Congrats on your Huffington Post article!! This is very exciting for your, Rachel.

    I have a few close friends. Maybe 5, although some live across the country so that makes it harder. I can’t call them up to watch Amazing Race or try the new Thai restaurant.

    Beyond those 5, I have many acquaintances. I guess you could call them friends, but I don’t feel the same level of intimacy and trust with them.

  16. Cindy

    This is a topic about which I have many conflicted feelings! I have ALWAYS equated more with better, yet I suspect my motives. Is it a primal desire to create as large a safety net as possible or something akin to the pack mentality of dogs? Is it a subconscious desire to show the world how popular and loved I am? Is it simply that I love having a wide range of people in my life, all of whom fulfill different parts of who I am?

    The reason I’m suspicious is because I feel like I have always wanted to “show off” my large group of friends and it would make me extremely uncomfortable if others perceived me as having only a few friends. Having such a hard time finding local BFFs, I feel compelled to let people know how many friends I have in other parts of the country. Yet in reality, I don’t have time to keep up as much as I would like with even my close friends, let alone 50 or 100 friends. It’s like I have a fantasy of how I want my friendships to be and then there is the reality.

    The numbers game is not easy!

  17. It all comes down to how we’re defining friends, huh? 🙂 Certainly a social network is one thing, but when we’re talking about the number of real friends, the people that we are regularly and consistently living life with and trust that they could be present for us (even if just for a ride to the airport) the research shows closer to half a dozen.

    I just came across research today that says 4 is the ideal number of real friends:

    But even research among lottery winners shows that we’re more likely to be happy if we have more than five friends, but not necessarily more than ten:

    I’m not a huge fan of stating one number for everyone– but certainly it should be a small enough group that you can stay intimate but a large enough group so you can enjoy the richness and back-up that comes from numbers? 🙂

    introducing women. inspiring friendship.

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