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Art Markman, Ph.D.

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When Is it Good to Have a Few Close Friends?

Posted: 01/22/2013 12:02 am

Look at your life. Do you have friends? What kind of friends do you have? Have you got a few people in your life that you spend a lot of time with? Have you got a larger number of acquaintances that you see on occasion?

Which is better?

I often ponder this question when watching movies. In lots of movies, there is a couple at the center of the action. The husband may hang out with his buddies bowling, and later the wife has her weekly lunch with a college friend. These scenes make sense dramatically, and they fit with a cultural belief that the path to happiness lies in having close friends.

How important is it for people to have a few close friends?

This issue was explored in a paper in the December, 2012 issue of Psychological Science by Shigehiro Oishi and Selin Kesebir. They suggest that it is most important for people to have a small number of close friends when people live in an area where few people are likely to move away and when economic circumstances lead people to need the help of their friends. That is, when people are relatively well-off, having friends is nice, but they do not necessarily need the kinds of close friends who can help them in a time of need. When people are poor and need other people's help, then it can be worthwhile to invest in close friends who can help them. But, that investment will not be repaid if there is a lot of mobility. When people move around a lot, then chances are those close friends will move away.

To explore the kinds of friends people have in different circumstances, over 200 participants were recruited to fill out a survey using Amazon's Mechanical Turk. About half of the participants were men and half were women.

Everyone was asked to think about very close friends (those they could not live life without), close friends that are not part of this inner group, and distant friends. They were given 60 points and were asked to allocate those points based on how much time and effort they would put into spending time with these three groups in their life. In addition, participants rated their current feeling of well-being. Finally, participants gave their zip code. The zip code was compared to census data to get information about how often people move in and out of that area as well as the median income in that zip code.

The results fit the predictions made by the researchers. Those people who were both living in an area that had a low median income and where people did not move around much were much happier when they devoted their efforts to close friends than when they devoted their efforts to a larger group of distant friends. This effect was quite large. The people in this group who focused on a small group of close friends were much happier than those who focused on a larger network of distant friends.

For the other three groups (people who were financially well-off and those who had a low median income and lived in an area with a lot of mobility), people were actually slightly happier if they devoted their effort to a larger group of distant friends than if they devoted their effort to a small group of close friends

This finding is interesting, because it suggests that the best way to set up your social network depends a lot on the circumstances around you. That means that the broad belief that it is important to have a few close friends may often be wrong.

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