Photo: Asaf R /
Photo: Asaf R /

Famous British novelist C.S. Lewis once wrote: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”

Actually, he’s only right on the second part. Friendship does have survival values.

Previous studies have shown the people who develop deep friendships live longer, happier, and more fulfilling lives. They’re at a lower risk developing heart disease, cancer, and depression. They’re also blessed with a stronger and resilient immune system. Having friends will literally help you survive.

But the question of who is your friend is more difficult to answer. It may come as a surprise that only about half of your “friends” consider you as a friend. This is according to a new study done by four professors at Tel Aviv University and MIT, prompting heated discussions among psychologists and sociologists on what exactly makes someone a friend. The result confirms what scientists have long believed – we are really bad at telling who our real friends are.

The study recruited 82 students aged 23-38 who are in the same undergraduate class. They are each asked to score every other person on a scale of 0-5 on how well they know each other: 0 means “I don’t know this person” and 5 means “one of my best friends.” Here is the full rubric they used:

How close are you to this person?
0 – I do not know this person;
1 – I recognize this person, but we never talked;
2 – Acquaintance (we talk or hang out sometimes);
3 – Friend;
4 – Close friend;
5 – One of my best friends.

Each student was also asked if they believed the other person considered them a friend. In 94% of the cases, when a student nominates another as a friend, he/she also expected the other person to nominate him/her back as a friend. However, that expectation is far from reality.

The result shows that students reciprocated the reported friendships only 53% of the time, a far lower percentage than the expected 94%.

The researchers says a lot of our “aspired” friendships may never be fulfilled. “The phenomenon of frequent unreciprocated friendships may be tied to the prevalence of social status and power hierarchy,” they wrote in the paper. “This suggests that many of the non-reciprocal friendships are aspirational: people want to be friends with higher-status individuals and behave in ways that indicate friendship.”

🔬 Study Summary

Students were asked to rank their relationships with other participants in the study:

  • In 94% of the cases, participants who marked someone as a friend expected him/her to reciprocate
  • In reality, only 53% of the perceived friendships were mutual

📰 Research paper: Are You Your Friends’ Friend? Poor Perception of Friendship Ties Limits the Ability to Promote Behavioral Change. Read full paper »

It’s a sad fact of life that almost half of our desired relationships is pursued in futile.

“People don’t like to hear that the people they think of as friends don’t name them as friends,” one of the study authors Alex Pentland told the New York Times, “the possibility of nonreciprocal friendship challenges one’s self-image.”

“Layers of friendship” – why you should focus on quality over quantity

So what are we suppose to do? Do we throw our hands up and hold grudges against these “fake” friends? That would be way too passive aggressive. Instead of focusing on increasing the number of friends, focus on building quality friendships with people who want to be friends with you.

Previous study by British evolutionary psychologist I.M. Dunbar showed that friendship comes in “layers.” At your inner most layer is your absolute closest friends. This usually includes one or two people, most frequently a significant other or a best friend from childhood.

Friendships are grouped in circles based on emotional closeness and frequency of contact. The 150 circle, indicated by the bold line, defines the limit on the number of bilateral relationships. Outside of this lie at least two further circles: The circle of 500 adds in everyone whom we would count as acquaintances, and the outermost layer of 1,500 includes everyone whose face we can put a name to.

The next layer consists of your good friends. This includes at most four or five of people you see and hang out with every week. The next three layers each consist of a maxima of 15, 50, and 150 people of various closeness. Most human beings are emotionally incapable of having more friendships that those limits permit. People beyond those layers, Dr. Dunbar says, are just acquaintances that you have around in your network.

What is a real friend?

So who are your real friends? The question is a  bit difficult to answer, but Dr. Dunbar’s research gives us hope. There’s no need to make everyone like you – after all, you only have limited space in each of your emotional layers. Instead of worrying about those who don’t reciprocate, work to build quality friendship with those who actually want to be friends with you.

To give you something to ponder, I’ll leave you off with this great quote by Andrew Sullivan in his book Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival.

Unlike a variety of other relationships, friendship requires an acknowledgement by both parties that they are involved or it fails to exist. One can admire someone who is completely unaware of our admiration… one may even employ someone without knowing who it is specifically one employs; one may be related to a great-aunt whom one has never met.

But friendship is different. Friendship uniquely requires mutual self-knowledge and will. It takes two competent, willing people to be friends. You cannot impose a friendship on someone, although you can impose a crush, a lawsuit, or an obsession. If friendship is not reciprocated, it simply ceases to exist or, rather, it never existed in the first place.