The ‘friend number paradox’ helps explain why certain people attract more friends

Feb 28 · 3 min read

A study showed we think we’ll attract more friends if we’re more popular, yet are more apt to befriend others if we know their posse is small.

Friends enjoy a glass of Prosecco while watching the sunrise on London Bridge.
Friends enjoy a glass of Prosecco while watching the sunrise on London Bridge.
Friends enjoy a glass of Prosecco while watching the sunrise on London Bridge as they welcome in Christmas morning on December 25, 2020 in London, United Kingdom. Photo: Joseph Okpako/Getty Images

By Anna Medaris Miller

People with fewer friends are more likely to attract new friends than people who already have a wide social circle — but they think the opposite is true, a January study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found.

The study demonstrated what the authors call “the friend number paradox,” or the concept that we think we’ll attract more friends if we’re more popular, but at the same time are more interested in befriending others if we know their posse is small.

“Social relationships are key to our well-being, yet our lay beliefs are often wrong and we adopt suboptimal strategies when we initiate these relationships,” study author Xianchi Dai, an associate professor of marketing at The Chinese University of Hong Kong Business School, told Insider.

He hopes this line of research helps people develop strong social relationships, something so critical a lack of them has been shown to be as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. That was from before the coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying loneliness epidemic.

Now, Dai said, “building social connections and receiving social support are unprecedentedly important.”

The researchers conducted speed-friending studies

Dai and colleagues conducted six studies looking at both online and in-person befriending scenarios.

The first three studies presented participants with scenarios to assess the discrepancy between what they predicted others would want in as a friend, and what they wanted in a friend. The researchers found people want high-quality relationships — harder to get from someone with lots of friends — but forget that when guessing what others want in them.

They also found they could help correct this discrepancy by reminding participants that, in fact, social butterflies may have less to give.

The other three “speed-friending” studies involved friend-seekers interacting, or expecting to interact, with the aim of initiating long-term friendships.

In one study, participants created profiles of themselves and chose someone else to befriend based on their profiles. Another included a live speed-friending event on campus.

“In such events, people with the largest number of friends in their session were indeed the least likely to obtain an opportunity of initiating a potentially long-term relationship,” Dai said, adding that the results were consistent no matter folks’ age or gender.

The findings demonstrate humans’ ego-centric viewpoint

The researchers say people’s natural egocentric viewpoint contributes to the “friend number paradox.” That is, we’re more apt to put our (in this case, false) predictions about ourselves onto others than to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and apply those insights to us.

We also tend to see the positive aspects of having more friends, like signaling a good personality or possessing “precious resources that others seek,” in ourselves. We see the negatives, like not having enough time or energy to sustain a friendship, in others, Dai said.

It’s possible that other factors explain this discrepancy, the researchers say. Maybe we prefer less popular people because we’re worried about rejection from queen bees. We might also think choosing someone whose circle is smaller than ours boosts our social clout.

No matter the potential causes, Dai said the findings suggest people shouldn’t “show off” a large friend number when seeking new connections.

For more great stories, visit Insider’s homepage.



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