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’?

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