Here’s an oddball (or two or three or four) to stew on whether you’re away on holiday at the moment, or not: friends.
You know, all those people comprising your in-real-life social circle, which today seems more and more tied up (see: submersed) in your digital social network. And I’m not talking about your friends simply being a bunch of weirdos, though that may very well be true. I’m talking more about the very act of friendship, the oftentimes-instinctual quest for company that really only backfires in a sick, cruel, albeit leveled joke that isolates us all individually with nothing but the sting of inferiority to keep us up at night. I’m talking about the friendship paradox.
It’s an idea raised by Scott L. Feld, a mathematical sociologist at Purdue University. Drawing on James Coleman’s classic 1961 study The Adolescent Society, which teased out how the organization of school life in 1950s America reinforced anti-learning tendencies among teens, Feld’s observations, outlined in a brutally honest 1991 paper titled Why Your Friends Have More Friends Than You Do, highlight how, on average, most of us have fewer friends than our friends have. “If individuals compare themselves with their friends,” Feld writes, “it it likely that most of them will feel relatively inadequate.”
Take A Look At Your Friends by beeallenanderson
You can look at this phenomenon as a sort of sampling bias whereby really cool folk – those with great numbers of “friends” – have greater chances of popping up among one’s cluster of friends, which I’ll here dub a circle network. It sounds paradoxical, but Feld’s idea holds up under the rigor of math, namely in that the mean number of friends of friends is always greater than the mean number of friends of individuals. Compile a list of all your friends, and then ask them to list all their friends in turn, and their average will likely best your companion count.
Some people simply have no friends, of course, as the Guardian explains. But you wouldn’t know these lone wolves, now would you? To quote psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa: “You are more likely to be friends with someone who has more friends than with someone who has fewer friends.” You’re not friends with solitary wanderers because there’s nothing in it for you. So you’re not only just a loser – you’re a jerk, too.
And you can see Feld’s paradox cropping up all over the place, as well, making life generally awkward for those who let it. If you’re one for the gym, all its sculpted regulars will seem intimidating – and just plain fitter than you – precisely because your chances of spying self-conscious, potentially lazier folk who aren’t prone to paying for a membership are, well, slim to none. In the bedroom, any given romantic partner’s “list” will likely far surpass yours, seeing as you’re more likely to gravitate toward larger circle networks than smaller ones. Quoth Kanazawa: “If your lover only had one lover, you are probably not him.”
So I guess for people who truly obsess over this sort of stuff – popularity, Gold’s Gym one-upmanship, the sack, etc. – I can see how Feld’s friendship paradox may be somewhat of a big deal, sobering deal. Maybe later tonight you’ll be out at some sad and wretched hometown bar that you knew all along you’d be roped into visiting. The place will be packed. And there you’ll be, excluded from conversations and left to mindlessly tap your phone between pulls of bottom-shelf whiskey. You are such a loser.
But hey, in spirit I’m right there with you, ’ol chum. We’ll always just be a bunch of losers. Here’s to relative social inadequacy.
Now pass the gravy.
A version of this piece originally ran on Nov. 23, 2011