Study shows social networks have limits

first_imgAfter observing students as they transitioned from school to university or work, an international team including Oxford professors has found that people only ever have a small number of close friends, whom they invest most of their effort in- friendships may change, but people maintain the same communication patterns over different friendships. The study combined survey data and phone call records to track changes over 18 months in 24 students’ communication networks. The members of each participant’s social network were ranked by emotional closeness, and in all cases it was seen that a small number of top-ranked members received a disproportionately large number of calls. “Although social communication is now easier than ever, it seems that our capacity for maintaining emotionally close relationships is finite,” said Felix Reed-Tsochas, James Martin Lecturer in Complex Systems at Saïd Business School. “While this number varies from person to person, what holds true in all cases is that at any point individuals are able to keep up close relationships with only a small number of people, so that new friendships come at the expense of ‘relegating’ existing friends.” One New College third year agreed with the findings, commenting, “This is no news to me- I’ve made a conscious effort to maintain a maximum of five close friendships for the past six years. This Christmas I reconnected with a very old friend and so had to decide which of the current crop to drop.” Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at Oxford, confirmed, “as new network members are added, some old network members are either replaced or receive fewer calls. This is probably due to a combination of limited time available for communication and the great cognitive and emotional effort required to sustain close relationships. It seems that individuals’ patterns of communication are so prescribed that even the efficiencies provided by some forms of digital communication (in this case, mobile phones) are insufficient to alter them.” Though all the students followed this general trend, there was clear variation between individual communication patterns, with each person having their own ‘social signature’ in how they communicated across the members of their social network. Despite the student’s undergoing an 18 month transition, their social signatures remained constant; they made the same amount of calls to friends of a given ‘closeness ranking’, even though those friends changed over time. Duncan Hegan, a second year historian, commented, “It makes sense when you think about it; maintaining close relationships takes time, effort and emotional investment. If you tried to maintain too many, you’d be spreading yourself a bit thin.”last_img

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