The screens do not substitute for real-life links. The hundreds of followers we have on Instagram can make us feel good when they like us, but we know that when things are bad we can count on a few real friends.
That happens because, naturally, we do not have time to develop true friendships with hundreds of people, but it can also be because our brains put a limit on the number of links we can form.
The limits of Friendship
In the 1980s, the Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis arose, arguing that primates have larger brains because they live in complex social groups. The bigger the group, the bigger the brain. That makes sense after all animals with larger brains can remember and interact with more individuals.
That is how, a decade later, the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar said that the same applies to human beings. In fact, depending on the size of a person’s brain, the number of acquaintances that an average individual can have in their social group is 150. That includes acquaintances, friends and all the people with whom we connect and whose faces we remember.
The so-called “Dunbar number” is, in fact, a series of figures. The first, 150, includes everyone, but later the social groups become smaller according to the depth of the links. The next one, 50, refers to casual friends, those people with whom you get along, but do not share enough to consider them intimate friends. Finally, the last and most important includes the closest friends to us and the amount is surprising: only five.
Those people who, as the phrase says, count on the fingers of one hand, are our support when things are not going well. They are our best friends and they can also be family.
However, Dunbar’s theory was not supported by evidence until recently. The professor, who today works at the University of Oxford, and his colleagues used the records of thousands of telephone calls to find out how many people we communicate with on a regular basis. The team assumed that the frequency of calls is a sign of the strength of a relationship and that is how they analyzed almost six billion calls from 35 million people. It is worth mentioning that this study was conducted in 2007, a little before social networks were part of everyone’s life.
They filtered the ones that were about business and casual calls, and only focused on people who called at least 100 people. That left them with 27,000 individuals to analyze and what they discovered is surprising: people have, on average, 4.1 friends. It’s a little less than what Dunbar had suggested, but it may be normal because not all of the people’s social interactions happen over the phone.
Social networks can make us believe that we have a million friends, but real life. Tells us that we have a handful, but that they are worth more than gold.
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