How many friends does one person need?

According to Robin Dunbar at a recent talk at the  RSA the maximum number of friends one person can have is 150. That’s the most ‘real’ friendships that humans can effectively manage. ‘What is a real relationship anyway?’

Robin compares the level or quality of friendships to ripples on a pond. If you throw a pebble into a pond it creates concentric circles of ripples. In the inner ripple the average person has 5 really close friends, in the next ripple there are 15 more less close friends, in the third ripple 50 further removed acquaintances, and 150 acquaintances or perhaps just contacts in the weakest outer sphere. And that’s it. We can’t physically keep up with any more.

Blood is thicker than water; we also prioritise family over friends, relationships are really hard work, and with family there is an unspoken connection, a more unconditional level of commitment that is harder to earn in a friendship. According to Robin people who have extensive families have fewer friends because they prioritise their family connections. Research also shows that in-laws get reprioritised too. So a new sister-in-law steps up from a ripple 3 friend acquaintance rating to ripple 2 in the unspoken friend pecking order; the same status as a blood cousin.

Interesting stuff but what does this mean for the sofa sport of friend, group and community collecting that is happening online in places like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter? In the online world we have multiple connections with a range of people who we don’t really know, some people who we have never even met. According to Robin social media sites like these merely stop relationships decaying so quickly, and can never replace the quality and connection of face to face contact and the more subtle visual communications and connectedness that accompany that.

So with your online networks; whether it’s a way of managing decaying real friendships, or developing new friends, it makes sense to also focus your efforts on quality not quantity – build rapport, develop communities, get connected with like-minded people.  You have the capacity to meaningfully befriend 150 people. Choose them well. Is it time to cull some ‘friends’?

One Comment on “How many friends does one person need?

  1. At age 63 I made this resolution.
    “Make 10,000 new friends in my lifetime while at the same time becoming a better friend to my existing ones. Measured by: a level of intimacy and mutual benevolence. Arising out of my world view.
    Note: a ‘level of intimacy’ implies that we exchange honest personal information, rather than the weather stuff. The mutual benevolence includes such as an empathetic emotional response to that information.”
    At that time, 20 years ago, I was losing friends and connections for a variety of reasons.
    I had no idea how even a hundred would happen! However, when I became Mayor of L B Hounslow in 2008-9 I completely lost count of the people with which I was able to achieve that level of engagement. Throughout that year, I tried to be at events early enough to talk to as many people as possible before the event happened, so that increased my numbers. The feedback to me was hugely rewarding.
    Sure, my close and ongoing friends are in the numbers that you and others suggest.
    However, when one does cross the paths of these people, one does not start at the level of a new contact.
    Knowing that you are likely to meet people with whom you already engaged in a positive way and that there are many more to meet is hugely positive, I commend the method!

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