Make New Friends, Jettison the Old

Unlikely data from cell phone usage: The number of friends we have never changes

by Alice Robb | January 8, 2014

We tend to think of certain phases of life as more social; we imagine that college dorms, for instance, have a friendlier atmosphere than nursing homes. But recent research has debunked the myth that seniors don’t form cliques just like high school students, and a paper forthcoming in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that our social network remains approximately the same size throughout our lives—though the individuals occupying it change.

What did the authors do?

"We combine detailed, autorecorded data from mobile phone call records with survey data. These were collected during a study that tracked changes in the ego networks of 24 students over 18 months as they made the transition from school to university or work…

These changes in personal circumstances result in a period of flux for the social relationships of the participants, with many alters [other people] both leaving and entering their networks."

What did they find?

"Our results establish three unique findings:

(i) There is a consistent, broad, and robust pattern in the way people allocate their communication across the members of their social network, with a small number of top ranked, emotionally close alters receiving a disproportionately large fraction of calls;

(ii) Within this general pattern, there is clear individual-level variation so that each individual has a characteristic social signature depicting his or her particular way of communication allocation;

(iii) This individual social signature remains stable and retains its characteristic shape over time and is only weakly affected by network turnover. Thus, individuals appear to differ in how they allocate their available time to their alters, irrespective of who these alters are."

What does it mean?

"Although social signatures vary between individuals, a given individual appears to retain a specific social signature over time. Our results are likely to reflect limitations in the ability of humans to maintain many emotionally close relationships, both because of limited time and because the emotional “capital” that individuals can allocate between family members and friends is finite...[Individuals] must downgrade (or drop) some individuals if they wish to add new ones to their preferred network at a high level of emotional intensity.."

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