Friendships – how many can we have?

Thursday, 26 Aug 2021

Parents often worry about their child’s small friendship group – just to add another issue to the bank of worries! Even though we often find, as adults, that we have very few ‘close’ friends, we still expect our children to have this large engaging, irrepressible circle of close friends. Moreover, there is often a mistaken belief that a large school supplies a larger pool of friends.

However, science has something to say about the numbers of friends we can have and say are ‘close’ and thereafter the numbers who are acquaintances. I find it interesting that many young people refer to ‘friends’ as being those who they may loosely know on Facebook. In this respect, comparisons of friendships reach dizzying heights even though these numbers are inflated by random people who are so unlikely to be classified as a true friend.

British anthropologist Robin Dunbar had a great deal to say about friendships based on his study of mammalian brains (the social brain hypothesis). ‘Dunbar's number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person’. Wikipedia

(Diagram shows the Dunbar effect)

There is a great deal of evidence and science that breaks this down but suffice to say, the issue here is the expectation parents have that their children may be missing out socially or worse still, that something must be wrong with their child because they don’t have this huge pool of friends.

In reality, Dunbar proposes that the closest circle comprises 5 people – and that includes family! So, for example, a child may have their mum or dad, their brother or sister and perhaps another related family member they regard as the most trusted people – the people to whom they would entrust a secret.

That leaves only 2 people at the school level a child could possibly turn to for advice, for comfort, for security and nurturance. The next biggest circle, of 15, are more than likely the ones you’d invite to a party. They may be the kids you play handball with each day and sometimes have arguments with. 

As for the 150 – almost the scientific maximum number – these may be ones associated with FB but hardly regarded as ‘close’ or trusted friends (the average group size among modern hunter-gatherer societies where there was accurate census data was 148.4 individuals). Company size in professional armies, Dunbar found, was also remarkably close to a hundred and fifty, from the Roman Empire to sixteenth-century Spain to the twentieth-century Soviet Union. (The Limits of Friendship – Konikova 2014).

As always, it is not the quantity of friends we have but the quality that gives us all – children and adults – everything we value. It is one of the reasons why school size is so often irrelevant. The fact is, if a child has one close good friend, then that’s a good thing. And yes, there are those who even find the making of one friend more of a challenge but that happens more because of the individual and this is no reason to be overly worried. Some children are very happy in their own company.

And let’s be clear about what a truly great friend is:

Reach Out Australia says a good friend:

  • is there for you, no matter what
  • doesn’t judge you
  • doesn’t put you down or deliberately hurt your feelings
  • is kind and respectful to you is someone whose company you enjoy
  • is loyal
  • is trustworthy and willing to tell you the truth, even when it’s hard for you to hear
  • laughs with you
  • sticks around when things get tough
  • makes you smile
  • is there to listen
  • comforts you when you cry.

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