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Posted on: November 15, 2019 at 5:26 pm

American actor Josh Charles once said, “My dad said to me growing up: ‘When all is said and done, if you can count all your true friends on one hand, you’re a lucky man.’”

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Some people may find counting their true friends a brutal exercise. It’s easy to list every likable acquaintance as a friend, but the more people consider who has been there during hard times, celebrates their triumphs without jealousy, and brings joy to their lives, the smaller the list becomes. 

“There is a limited amount of time and emotional capital we can distribute, so we only have five slots for the most intense type of relationship,” said evolutionary psychologist Robin I.M. Dunbar. “People may say they have more than five but you can be pretty sure they are not high-quality friendships.” [1]

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However, that may be a good thing. The larger your circle of friends, the more likely some may discount you as a friend. 

A Disheartening Study

A 2016 study published in PLOS ONE analyzed surveys that included students in Europe, Israel, and the U.S. to determine whether they had as many friends as they thought they did. It’s human nature to assume a person reciprocates feelings of friendship, but this is not always true.

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“It turns out that we’re very bad at judging who our friends are,” said Dr. Erez Shmueli, one of the study’s authors. “If you think someone is your friend, you expect him to feel the same way. But in fact, that’s not the case.”

Shmueli explained that one-sided friendships are not as valuable as mutual ones. They don’t carry enough influence and are unable to motivate a person toward good behavior and habits. This here is the true point of the study. For example, would a one-sided friendship be helpful for a person trying to quit smoking?

The researchers posed two questions: 

  1. What proportion of friendships are reciprocal? 
  2. How much does reciprocity in friendships matter when it comes to how peers influence each other?

For the first question, the researchers studied 84 Middle-Eastern students in a business management class. Each student rated his peers on a scale from zero to five, zero meaning, “I don’t know this person,” three meaning “friend,” and five meaning “best friends.”

From the 6,972 total ratings, there were 1,353 were rated as “friends.” While 94% of these friendships were thought to be mutual, only 53% actually were. (This is where many people assume this proves half of every person’s friends are fake. This will be discussed under “What’s the Point?”) The study’s authors procure a reason for these numbers: people tend to be optimistic about their perceived friendships with those with higher statuses.

This is a limited study though with only 84 subjects, but it’s beneficial that it was a closed network, which helps refine the statistical network analysis. It’s also worthy to note that friendships are hard to categorize and perhaps should be quantified in more complex terms in further studies.

For the second question, the researchers worked with a different set of participants all living in the same community who had also taken the survey test (where only 45% had reciprocal friendships). The subjects had software on their phones that tracked their physical activity and created financial rewards for their progress. In two versions of the software, the participants were matched with two buddies who can check up on each other and be rewarded for each other’s progress. Again, this works well as a closed network study, but it had a small sample size of 130 participants.

In the end, the subjects paired with reciprocal friends were more likely to positively influence each other to meet their fitness goals. The ones who were paired with people they did not consider to be friends with did not receive these positive influences. [2]

What’s the Point?

When it comes to creating a support system for any issue, identify your reciprocal friendships first, since these will be most effective to achieve the end goal.

Many people view this study as a ghost hunt to determine “who the fake friends are.” While the study does claim that “people are typically poor at perceiving the direction of their friendship ties,” that does not necessarily mean only 50% of your friends like you. 

In fact, the data of the study showed that when Person A considered Person B as a friend, there was a 70% chance that Person B thought the same way. [3]

Who are Your Real Friends?

While humans seem to be somewhat bad at sensing reciprocal friendships, there are a few simple ways to figure it out. The study discovered that the number of mutual friends you have and your social statuses can be an indicator of whether you are actually friends or not.

“The difference in the number of friends of the two individuals” is a good predictor, said Shmueli. “The higher this difference is, the lower the likelihood of the friendship to be reciprocal.”

So a person in your friend group who you hang out with every other Friday night is most likely your friend. But a popular person with double the amount of connections you have who occasionally invites you to parties is probably not.

“Treating friends like investments or commodities is anathema to the whole idea of friendship,” said Ronald Sharp, a professor of English at Vassar College, who teaches a course on the literature of friendship. 

“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.” [4]

  1. Kate Murphy. Do Your Friends Actually Like You? The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/07/opinion/sunday/do-your-friends-actually-like-you.html August 6, 2016
  2. Abdullah Almaatouq, Laura Radaelli, Alex Pentland, Erez Shmueli. Are You Your Friends’ Friend? Poor Perception of Friendship Ties Limits the Ability to Promote Behavioral Change. PLOS One. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0151588 March 22, 2016
  3. Lisa A. Williams. Is it true that only half your friends actually like you? Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/is-it-true-that-only-half-your-friends-actually-like-you-a7195006.html August 17, 2016
  4. BEC Crew. Only Half of Your Friends Actually Like You, Science Reveals. Science Alert. https://www.sciencealert.com/you-have-half-as-many-real-friends-as-you-think-you-do-study-finds May 1, 2018
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Sarah Biren
Founder of The Creative Palate
Sarah is a baker, cook, author, and blogger living in Toronto. She believes that food is the best method of healing and a classic way of bringing people together. In her spare time, Sarah does yoga, reads cookbooks, writes stories, and finds ways to make any type of food in her blender. Her blog The Creative Palate shares the nutrition and imagination of her recipes for others embarking on their journey to wellbeing.

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