One hundred and fifty friends, that’s how much our brains can handle. But while one adult continues to fill the pond with ease, the other hardly makes any friends anymore. What is the secret of ‘super friends’?
It is quite an intimidating number, one hundred and fifty. But apparently the human brain can handle many social relationships, according to research conducted by British evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar. Although it goes beyond just intimate friends, a partner, a nice family member or a pickleballfriends in this circle, but still: I don’t have many.
It’s something that has bothered me for about a decade: every now and then an old friend disappears from the radar, as they usually do, but I struggle to label new contacts as “friends.” Nice colleague yes. Cream a guest, that too. But a friend or a friend? Even after an excess of Maes lager I wouldn’t dare call it that.
With a positive dose of envy you sometimes look at others, who can not even leave the bakery without a slice of bread and a freshly baked friendship. Or who shared a coffee with tweep that few days after a banal Twitter conversation on a terrace – an expensive one usually, if they are young people. Even if, according to American research, you have to spend at least fifty hours together to evolve from ordinary friends to casual friends, they do it in the blink of an eye.
In his book platonic American psychologist Marisa Franco calls this category ‘super friends’. According to him, they already have one important common denominator: a secure attachment style. The term comes from attachment theory, which states that relationships with our parents or other caregivers form a blueprint for how we later approach social relationships.
Developmental psychologist Wim Beyers (UGent) says: “Anyone who feels secure not only has a positive image of themselves, but also of others, and sees their relationships as rich value. On a social level, you can already see in childhood and adolescence that people who close their security make friends more easily, because they score better on criteria such as sympathy or spontaneity, and they are also more successful in love relationships.
Take the plunge
“These effects continue into a later age,” says Beyers. “Because making new friends is often related to daring to take a step, don’t hesitate too much,” says Beyers. It is a sweaty click in the fitness room and uninhibited imagine they pop together again on Wednesday. They take it with a smile that something like this does not always end in bff mode.
People with an anxious attachment style simply lack trust in the other person to take the plunge. It is better to remain silent than to be deceived. An avoidant attachment style is another story. “Then the main thing is to feel that you do not need the other person at all and you will solve it all yourself,” says psychologist Ann Buysse. These are the people who, according to research, sometimes ghost someone: abruptly end a relationship and never hear from you again.
Do you miss something because of this? It’s no secret that people who can rely on friendship have many advantages: less stress, a better sleep pattern, even a more resilient immune system. A study compared the health effects of close friendships with those of smoking cessation. But does that mean you have to have a lot of friends? To drag crime icon Al Capone into friendship:I’d rather have four quarters than a hundred pennies.”
Try not to think too much about super friends or the popularity of snaps on social media, says Beyers. “In general, people evolve towards fewer friendships anyway, but they are more qualitative.” For example, according to him, in surveys with 14-year-olds you will see that the number of positive friends is limited to about twenty-five. “With 20-year-old, you go to five or six earlier.” It is also logical: the older you are, the more time is spent on fixed patterns such as work or family. And you don’t need to rely on an introductory game at all.
“If your social needs are filled with three intimate friendships, you don’t need to feel any pressure at all,” says Beyers, who returns to the surveys at 14 and 20-years-old. “It is actually more important that about 3 to 4 percent indicate that they have zero friends.”
Self fulfilling prophecy
Are you doomed if you’re stuck with an insecure attachment style? “Thanks, Mom and Dad.” No, said Buysse. It’s not set in stone after childhood, and it’s certainly not a black and white story. “We often combine elements or adopt them in a relationship. A secure partner can alleviate fear, and vice versa.”
You can also work on it, through various forms of therapy, for example. But the final advice, according to Marisa Franco, is actually very simple: “Assume that people like you,” she writes. An example: “Would you like to reconnect with a friend you’ve lost track of? Assume that person wants it too.”
Science supports this thesis: being considered nice or sympathetic turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy in the test groups. Easier said than done of course. Because in moments like these, the point that is not safe is working extra: what if this new friend is pretending and you actually think he is a big jellyfish? Then you look pretty stupid.