The Friend Number Paradox
When do you think others are more attracted to you: when you have a lot of friends or when you have only a handful of them? The answer to this question seems obvious—most of us are scared of the prospect of being a loner and connected to only a few, while having a large number of social ties conveys our popularity and desirable personalities. This is indeed what we find when my colleagues and I asked our study participants—from both the United States and Asia—this question. A sheer majority of them thought that others would be more likely to make friends with them when they have more friends.
Yet they were wrong, despite how straightforward their answer seems. When we asked another group of participants to tell us whom they actually prefer to befriend, the majority of them chose a person with fewer friends, not more. We dub this mismatch between people’s prediction and their actual preference “the friend number paradox.”
But why would people prefer others with a relatively smaller number of friends? The answer lies in our fundamental motive that stimulates the building of our social relationships. That is, we care for our friends and expect they could care for us as well. It is this reciprocal responsiveness that keeps our friendships alive. After all, a person is not a friend if she seldom cares about you or you rarely care about her.
So one of the potential problems of befriending someone who has a relatively larger number of friends is that she ought to be less able to fulfill the reciprocal obligations as implied in a quality relationship because each of us only has limited resources in terms of time and attention. And our studies suggest that these concerns about relationship quality do exert a heavy influence on people’s preferences for their potential friends in social interactions.
In a real “speed-friending” event we conducted on campus, people chose one another to establish a potentially long-term friendship based only on information about others’ hobbies, food preferences, and number of existing friends. Not surprisingly, people tended to befriend those who have relatively more hobbies and food tastes in common with them. Importantly, people also tended to choose other participants who have relatively fewer friends in their session, even though they predicted that the others would do the opposite to them. Moreover, those with the largest number of friends in their session were actually the least likely to obtain the opportunity of initiating a long-term relationship in our speed-friending event.
Thus, the friend number paradox is perilous to the establishment of desirable social relationships among people. A question that follows is what makes people ignorant of others’ concerns when thinking about others’ preferences towards them? We found that the answer has something to do with egocentrism. That is, we are disposed to think about others’ preferences by consulting our own. Since people in general would personally consider having a lot of friends to be desirable, they tend to infer that others would find them more attractive when they have relatively more friends.
Correcting people from making this mistake could be very meaningful, as doing so might help them make wiser choices about how to behave when initiating social relationships. In a further study, we showed that reminding people of their reciprocal obligations in social relationships can help adjust their predictions to be more in line with others’ true preferences. We asked our participants to think about what others would expect them to do as a friend under various circumstances. As a result of this reminder, substantially more participants indicated that others should be more likely to befriend them when they have a relatively smaller number of friends, not larger. Therefore, taking others’ perspectives seems to be the key to success both in maintaining our social relationships and in initiating them.
For Further Reading
Si, K., Dai, X., & Wyer, R. S., Jr. (2021). The friend number paradox. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 120(1), 84–98. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000244
Kao Si is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at University of Macau. His research focuses on judgment and decision making. Web: https://fba.um.edu.mo/faculty/kaosi/