In his anthemic song “No New Friends” the interminable DJ Khaled spouts the following prescriptive sentiment: “No new friends, no new friends, no no new… Fuck a fake friend, where your real friends at?”
Perhaps it’s a bit brash, but Khaled certainly has a point.
Though the song isn’t necessarily a scientific study on friendship and it’s authenticity, such data does exist. And it pretty much proves Khaled’s untraditional hypothesis that there’s not all that much room for blossoming friendships. Or, rather, that there are only a certain amount of close relationships that a person can maintain at any given time.
In an article recently published in The New York Times, entitled “Do Your Friends Actually Like You?” writer Kate Murphy delved into the particularities that define closeness. Her article asked the tough questions about the imbalanced values individuals place on friendship.
Apparently, only approximately half of perceived friendships are indeed reciprocal! This means that somebody you consider a friend might sooner name you an acquaintance, or that somebody you hardly know might define you as one of their good friends.
A study published at PLOS supports these claims. Entitled, “Are You Your Friends’ Friend? Poor Perception of Friendship Ties Limits the Ability to Promote Behavioral Change” the study claims that generally people assume that their friendships are mutual. However, this consistent expectation of reciprocity doesn’t affect the nature of the relationships (half of which are, in fact, reported as unequal).
“Throughout my life I’ve never truly had more than two or three close friendships at once—in the times when I’ve attempted to stretch my attention and compassion to fit the demand of an increased number of close relationships, both my mental health and my friendships have suffered.”
Nor does this assumption benefit either party. Asymmetry in relationships undermines some of the most notable pros of a close friendship—like constructive peer pressure. For instance, the PLOS study claims that an individual is less likely to heed advice or follow positive examples of another person if the ties of friendship aren’t strong, or are unbalanced.
In other words, it’s more difficult to convince somebody to quit smoking because you’re worried about them if that person doesn’t really give a shit about you and your feelings.
Furthermore, unequal friendships can leave everybody involved with a sense of discomfort, over-exposure, or disappointment. It’s a strange feeling to know that somebody you don’t consider yourself particularly close with would categorize you as a good friend, and vice versa.
From a purely anecdotal perspective, I can attest to this phenomenon. Throughout my life I’ve never truly had more than two or three close friendships at once—in the times when I’ve attempted to stretch my attention and compassion to fit the demand of an increased number of close relationships, both my mental health and my friendships have suffered.
When I first got together with my boyfriend, he entreated me to play a game to help him better understand the importance of the friends to whom I’d begun to introduce him. He urged me to rate my friendships on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best of friends, and 1 being relatively negligible.
When I refused, he instead posed an alternative system: a postulated death match. We called it “Who Would You Kill?”
Here’s how it works:
Let’s say Sally and Cindy were dangling from a cliff, and I was only strong enough to pull one up before the other one fell; who would it be?
As much as I don’t wish death or dismemberment on just about anybody, I actually found the exercise to be pretty simple.
Of course, there were instances in which I simply couldn’t decide. Where the thought of letting either Lynn or Esther fall to their deaths would paralyze me, rendering my ability to help either one moot.
This was an eventuality that we allowed for—these friends, between whom I could not choose, were simply ranked on the exact same level of friendship. This level could then be placed on our 1-10 scale by comparison.
“There is a limited amount of time and emotional capital we can distribute, so we only have five slots for the most intense type of relationship.” – Robin I.M. Dunbar
Maybe I couldn’t choose between Lynn and Esther, but I could certainly choose between Esther and Cindy.
As it turns out, my boyfriend’s death game is a pretty accurate measure of what evolutionary psychologist Robin I.M. Dunbar calls layers of friendship. Dunbar claims that levels of friendship are both tiered and numerically finite.
Dunbar argues that the top level of friendship has room for one or two people–like a spouse and a best friend who know you very intimately, and with whom you communicate often. The next level down, he says, requires frequent (but not daily) management; this level has room for approximately four people. Next, there are casual friendships, which don’t demand as much maintenance or attention.
These bottom level folks are people with whom you’re friendly, but wouldn’t necessarily be defined as friends. If you’re not careful, they can easily slip into the realm of mere acquaintance.
Dunbar told the New York Times, “There is a limited amount of time and emotional capital we can distribute, so we only have five slots for the most intense type of relationship.” He continued, “People may say they have more than five, but you can be pretty sure they are not high-quality friendships.”
So, hold your friends close. Or better yet: ask them if they’re actually your friends. Because science says that they probably don’t like you that much, and you might be better off investing your time and energy in people who do.