The Surprising Appeal of Having Just a Few Friends

February 1, 2021

New research reveals how more friends may not always be better.

Consider the number of friends you have and how you think this makes you look.  If the number of friends you have grows, do you become more appealing to other people as a possible friend?  Or do you become less appealing?  If you were to take a wild guess, what would you say?

Now let’s flip this question around:  If you could choose between someone who has a slew of friends or someone who has a handful of friends, which person would you rather have as a friend?

A team of researchers explored these questions in a series of studies, and their results highlight an intriguing contradiction between what we assume will make us more inviting as a friend and what we actually like better in others.

In both online and real-world situations, the investigators found that we have a propensity to presume that we’ll seem more appealing to other people if we have more friends, but when it comes to what we want in a friend, we tend to lean toward people with a somewhat smaller number of friends.  They termed this the “friend number paradox.”

Why does this inconsistency happen?  Why would we seem to apply different standards to ourselves than others?  The primary explanation the researchers put forward is that we humans tend to have a self-concerned viewpoint that leads us to assume that others will rate us as a potential friend in the same way we rate ourselves.

In other words, because we anticipate that we’ll seem more appealing to people if we have more friends, we project that notion onto others and assume they’ll assess us in the same manner.  Moreover, when we’re thinking about what we wish for in a friend, we’re more inclined to want a connection with someone who can put more effort into cultivating and nurturing a friendship and who is available to spend time together.

As the investigators pointed out, someone with comparatively more friends is not going to be able to put as much of themselves into any one friendship, and we’re apt to take that into account and favor people with a somewhat smaller number of friends.

That being said, the researchers also noted that there could be other possible reasons why there’s an incongruity between how many friends we think people want us to have versus the number of friends we want our friends to have.  As an illustration, we might opt for people with a comparatively smaller circle of friends because we’re anxious about being socially shunned.

Alternatively, perhaps we think we’ll have greater social standing if our friends have a more limited number of friends than we do.  Or, we might want to see ourselves in a favorable light and so we zero in on how a larger group of friends may make us look good, setting aside our awareness that a buddy with a larger network of friends isn’t necessarily what we’re looking for.

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