Only Half of Our Friends Actually Like Us
May 5, 2017
How many friends would you say you have? I read an article by Bec Crew a while back ago that challenged whether our friendships were as reciprocal as we think they are. He highlights a study revealing that the feeling is mutual with only about half of the people we think of as friends:
Led by researchers from MIT, the study analysed friendship ties in 84 subjects aged 23 to 38, who were taking part in a business management class.
The subjects were asked to rank how close they were with each person in the class on a scale of 0 to 5, where 0 means "I do not know this person," 3 means "Friend," and 5 means "One of my best friends."
The researchers found that while 94 percent of the subjects expected their feelings to be reciprocated, only 53 percent of them actually were.
The study is of course limited because of its tiny sample size, but as Kate Murphy reports for The New York Times, the results are consistent with data from several other friendship studies from the past decade, comprising more than 92,000 subjects, that put reciprocity rates at 34 to 53 percent.
This perception gap when it comes to friendship hints at a number of pretty significant problems, from our inability to clearly define friendship and the impact this could have on our own self-image, to us having the wrong idea about the kind of people who could actually affect social change.
While one of the team, computational social science researcher Alex Pentland, suggests that this inability to read people is largely due to us desperately trying to maintain a favourable self image - "We like them, they must like us." - the concept of friendship is actually really difficult to define.
I would hope that the older people in the study faired better in the perception gap. My teenage daughters have been learning a lot about this very issue. After reading the article I asked myself who I thought my friends were, and began to write down some names. It was interesting to see how many married couples I wrote down together. I was trying to only write down names of people I thought would mutually write my name down on their list. I have to say that I quit because the act of writing my friends names on paper felt very cheapening to our relationship. But it became clear to me that the size of the list would change dramatically depending on the way I defined friendship. I wonder how the study above would have been affected if the categories were more clearly defined between 0 and 5.
For instance, I have a decent amount of people for whom I have affection for and enjoy their presence. But the amount would be reduced by other factors like, people I would share private concerns with, or people I would ask for an inconvenient favor from. Notice I said would there, and not could. That may say more about me than them, but still affects the amount.
The article went on to quote from some friendship professionals for a definition friendship, the problems with our perceptions of it in our culture, and an opinion of how many friends would be good to have:
"Treating friends like investments or commodities is anathema to the whole idea of friendship," Ronald Sharp, a professor of English at Vassar College, who teaches a course on the literature of friendship, told Murphy. "It’s not about what someone can do for you, it’s who and what the two of you become in each other’s presence."
"People are so eager to maximise efficiency of relationships that they have lost touch with what it is to be a friend," he says.
But hey, it’s not all bad news. If you cut your friends by half and end up with five true pals who really do love you back, you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be, says renowned British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar.
According to a recent study led by Dunbar, while 150 is the maximum number of social relationships the average human can maintain with any degree of stability, we're only able to maintain a mere five close friendships at a time.
"People may say they have more than five but you can be pretty sure they are not high-quality friendships," he told The Times.
I imagine friendship as a commodity has always been an issue, but it is so much more apparent with the advent of social media. One thing is for sure: high-quality friendships are a blessing. And they are something worth investing in. How would you define that? We learn a lot about friendship in Scripture. Here are just a few excerpts of the more imperative kind:
A man of too many friends comes to ruin,
But there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
Better is open rebuke than love that is concealed.
Faithful are the wounds of a friend,
But deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.
Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor.
For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion.
But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up.
You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals.”
1 Cor. 15:33
I came across an enriching definition of friendship while reading this week from Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions, by Dan Brennan:
A friend is one whose presence is joy, ever-deepening relationship and love, ever available in direct address, in communion and presence. A friend is one who remains fundamentally a mystery, inexhaustible, never fully known, always surprising. Yet a friend is familiar, comforting at home. A friend is one who urges human freedom and autonomy in decision, yet one who is present in the community of interdependence. ---Anne E Carr
Christians are called to a friendship of the highest quality:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.
So we have the greatest friendship one could imagine. And this makes a strong case for why our perception gap matters. What matters more, how many people we can call a friend, or how many people can call us one?