How many friends do you need?

bad girls

I’m not sure who these people are but I think they might be considered my
oldest (and craziest) friends.

Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary anthropologist in England, has made a study of how many people the average person knows. He and other researchers have found that on average people are connected in a variety of ways to a total of about 148 others.

Here’s the gang I hang out with on Saturdays in the fall….

MSU-Memphis and Prairie arts 10 015

Dunbar rounds it to 150 for simplicity’s sake. (You can spot most of my friends above). It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about hunter-gatherer societies, businesses or Facebook, people seem to be able to connect with no more than about 150.  Even those who claim to have 1,400 followers on Twitter or Facebook actually only consistently interact with about 150. (Dunbar theorizes it has something to do with our brain’s capacity, but that has yet to be tested.)

Dunbar isn’t suggesting we all need 150 friends. That’s the total number of all the different kinds of people with different levels of connection that we generally recognize as being somehow involved in our lives. Within that number are levels of connection that are important in different ways.

45th reunion - class of 65 004

Looking back over my own life, my closest circle of friends has changed drastically over the years.  At one time, they were primarily business associates, bridge buddies and co-workers in volunteer organizations.  Today they are more likely to be co-conspirators in the battle to fight aging in which the West Point High School class of ‘65 figures prominently.

But back to your Imagine Dunbar’s theory as a target. You are in the bullseye. In the next circle out are the people who are most dear to you. On average, people have three to five close, personal relationships. That’s all. Those of you who worry that you only have a few close friends can relax. You are well within normal. Of course, an average is the midpoint of any group. So some people have more than three, some have fewer.

Here are a few of my favorites…

65th bday 001

As you move out from the center, each concentric circle has more people but with less meaningful connection. After the close friend group, the next ring generally has about 15 people who matter — usually relatives, mentors, and friends who don’t quite make the inner circle but still mean a lot. We see them less often than those in the center group but the relationships are warm and reciprocal in some way. They are the kind of people who seem to be in ongoing conversations with us that are interrupted by long periods of silence. When we get together again, it’s as if we never left off. The only difference is today we toast with Ensure rather than champagne.

doctored sick girls

The next ring has about 50 people, typically friends of friends we’ve gotten to know a bit and people we see regularly but don’t count as our own friends. Perhaps you’ve met them multiple times at a mutual friend’s parties. Maybe you’ve served on a committee with them but never followed up to get to know them better. Or perhaps they are the people we see regularly at the local Piggly Wiggly.

Finally, there’s an outer ring of other people we recognize by sight as part of our community but we don’t relate to much, if at all. They are the people we recognize when we see them in a crowded mall or say hi to when we bump into them at a concert.

If you are at all active in your school or community, you may have more acquaintances than you think you do — probably a number that will bring your total of all the rings to about 150.  Maybe more if you’re lucky!

3 thoughts on “How many friends do you need?

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