Look at your phone and check out your messaging apps… who are you texting, calling, and sending funny pictures today? (Go on, I’ll wait, but don’t get stuck on those mesmerizing makeup tutorials again!) Are these the same names that you normally see pop up on your screen? Probably. There’s probably five or so folks you hear from more or less every day, either digitally or in person.
Why? Well, according to Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology, there are tiers of friendship (yes, Mindy was right!) expanding in concentric circles outwards from your very closest confidants to acquaintances who you would probably wish a happy birthday on social media or pause to greet if you ran into them on the street. (Here’s a really cool podcast about networks where they interview Dunbar).
The theory goes that as primates developed larger brains, their capacity for connections grew with their brain size, which is why humans can develop complex and relatively large social groups. Dunbar posits that the maximum number of stable relationships a person can have is 150, with five being in the most intimate tier of friends and family, 15 being those you could trust with most things, 50 who you see relatively often and who would score an invite to a big event and the largest would be acquaintances who your connection is relatively more fleeting, who you know, but do not see often or know intimately.
Of course, this theory came about before social media, and apps like hey! Vina. But it’s likely that the pattern remains, and the bulk of your online “friends” belong in this outer tier. Social media makes us feel like we are sharing our experiences like we would in real life, extending the lifecycle of connections that would have otherwise disappeared in previous generations.
Psychology has other insights for us. The study of personality – something that I am fascinated with – seeks to understand the ways in which we create, maintain and sometimes end these relationships. The current dominant theory of personality suggests that there are five traits that co-mingle within us, making us unique. “The Big Five” include extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience.
Researchers Laakasuo, Rotkirch, Berg, and Jokela recently published a paper on the degree to which these factors influence our friendships. Before taking a Big Five quiz, have a think about how much each of the below sounds true for you. Their approach goes beyond just thinking about the similarities between friends, considering factors like age, heritage, gender, employment, distance and regularity of contact.
You see your friendships and see your history of adventures
When you answered my question “who did I talk to most recently,” you probably had to close down the window with your world clock on it. Your friends are spread all over the world, following your random adventures and migrations. Your friends have less in common with each other, and even might be very different in age, employment and location than you. The internet really helps you maintain these relationships because you don’t always see your friends very often.
Being a pro at long distance contact, diversity in your friendship group, and less face-to-face time (rather than FaceTime of which you have plenty) contact, suggests high degrees of openness to experience. You may be liberal and might catch up with your diverse group of friends campaigning for what you believe in.
Your friends live close to you and you hang out all the time
You and your friends live really close to each other – which is really handy, considering you want to see them most days! You are really similar, especially in age and gender, with similar interests and experience. This suggests that you are probably high on the extraversion scale because you love interacting with them. You are also probably relatively low on the neuroticism scale too. People who are more emotionally stable see their friends really often. (This is totally me!)
You have a small posse whom you love very much but don’t need to see all the time
You keep it tight! You don’t necessarily want or need a big “squad”. You might have a couple of very intimate friendships, who are more often than not people you have known for a long time (you might even be kin!), who live close by and who you see a couple of times a month.
The Big Five suggests that you are likely to be lower on extraversion, which simply means you need less interaction or attention than those who are higher on the extraversion scale. It is also likely that you are less open to new experience or be less agreeable. That just means you know what you like, and aren’t afraid to let people know about it!
Your friends have always been there, blood is thicker than water for you
When you think about your friends, it’s really cool because you’ve known them forever. You hang out lots with your family or with friends you have known for a really long time. They get you and your history and the shared experiences make your friendships so solid. People like you are likely to rate highly on the agreeableness scale.
You love to catch up with your friends but its hard with your workloads
You work really hard, and sometimes catching up is a challenge. Not many of your friends aren’t busy. You hang out mainly with people who identify as the same gender as you and probably some of your relatives. You are likely to be high on the conscientiousness scale.
Of course, personality traits and the factors the researchers considered are only part of what makes your friendships special. Knowing more about ourselves, helps bring out the best in us by developing areas for improvement and embracing your strengths! Let us know which of “The Big Five” you think you are in the comments below.