Can You Have Too Many Friends?


If you’ve felt as though you’ve been struggling to maintain your friendships of late – be they real life or online (not that these ones can count for a whole lot) – don’t despair. There is some truth to the idea that you can have TOO many friends. Our brains just aren’t designed to put that much into that many relationships; it’s knackering.

In his book, How Many Friends Does One Person Need?, Evolutionary Biologist Robin Dunbar explains that there is a definite cognitive limit to the number of relationships we can maintain. Apparently, despite the advent of social media and enormous connecting platforms such as Facebook, little has changed throughout our evolutionary process where real relationships are concerned. You may think you have more than 450 friends when you tot up all of your connections online, but, in reality, this can’t be true. Besides, how many of them would you stop in the street to say hello to?

Now admittedly, when reading about this research, we expected to find that we can really only maintain about 20 relationships at any one time in our life but in actual fact it’s a FAR higher number: 150. Shocked?

As per Dunbar, this is down to the brain’s neocortex size. Dunbar says of this number that it “refers to those people with whom you have a personalised relationship, one that is reciprocal and based around general obligations of trust and reciprocity”.

However, Dunbar is quick to point out that these aren’t all BFFs that you’re going to take selfies with to blast all over Instagram. They wouldn’t all be ‘friends’ in the way that we would have used the term before social media came along and fooled us into thinking we had more ‘friends’ than we knew what to do with. As per Psychology Today:

“The circle of 150 is not a homogenous social group but rather consists of four layers called the “Circles of Acquaintanceship,” which scale relative to each other by a factor of three (an inner core of five intimates, and then successive layers of 15, 50 and 150). With each successive circle, the number of people included increases but the emotional intimacy decreases.”

How many real friendships do you feel it is possible to maintain? How many best friends would you have? As Dunbar points out, the more you expand your social circle, the more the quality of those relationships will be diluted, so if you can count your true friends even on just one hand, consider yourself lucky!

Caroline Foran @CarolineForan

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