Am I Normal? How many friends do I need? (Transcript)

Monday, October 18, 2021

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Mona Chalabi: [00:00:00]
It's been about two months since I left New York for London. I'm still settling into my new flat here, putting up curtains, choosing a couch, all that. I arrived excited to be out of my tiny apartment. And now that COVID restrictions had lifted, I was excited to see people too. I'd been away from my London friends for a long time, so I knew that I needed to be proactive in reestablishing friendships here. And I needed friends after so long alone.

But it was hard. Restrictions might have lifted, but my anxiety had not. So, maskless faces, even friendly ones, still inspired fear. Sometimes the sun stayed out for long enough that a get-together felt safe, even joyous. But it didn't last long. After an hour, my socially isolated brain would just go kaput. I'd run out of things to say, and I'd run on home. It wasn't just that the world had changed. I [00:01:00] had, too. In the austere light of COVID, I reevaluated some of my friendships. Loads of us did. Half of Americans said they lost touch with at least one friend during the pandemic.

For me, there weren't any big fights or disagreements, just an unkind stretching-out of time between texts and calls.

So there were the friendships that had soured, but there were also the ones that had shifted without the help of COVID. While I'd been running up tabs around Brooklyn bars before the pandemic, friends back in London had been settling down, acquired mortgages, partners, offspring. I love them just as much as I did before their hands were full. But they weren't as available as they had once been.

After a while, my initial flurry of excitement to be newly back in London tapered off, and it gave way to a bit of loneliness. But is this just because of the move or is this post-pandemic life for everyone right now? [00:02:00] I wanted to understand this all a little better. I wanted to put a number on it. What is a normal number of friends?

From the TED Audio Collective, this is Am I Normal? I’m Mona Chalabi and I'm a data journalist. In my work, I use numbers to make sense of a chaotic world, but the truth is life is messier than that. And numbers don't always tell you the whole story.

Today, I want to understand friendship a little bit better.

The closest thing I have to a fun day out these days is going to look at curtain fabric with my mum.

Mum (Dr. Chalabi):
I am Mona’s mum. I used to be a gynecologist and then I switched into family practice or general [00:03:00] practice. I worked for more than, oh, just over 20 years, and I retired six years ago, and I'm enjoying my time.

Mona Chalabi (to her Mum):
Okay. I think all you needed to give was just your name for that one, but that's okay.

Mona Chalabi:
I do enjoy her company. The thing is though, I'm not going to go to the bar with her after a rough day. But, since the friends I used to go to the bar with are now washing baby's bums at tequila time, I was left with my mum. And so I thought, I may as well ask her how motherhood changed her friendships. Did my baby bum ever get in the way of her having a good time? What advice did she have for me about navigating old friendships with new mums?

Mum (Dr. Chalabi):
I think you have to accept it. That's her real life. She has her priorities, her husband and her children, not you.

Mona Chalabi:
Growing up, I don’t remember you or Dad having any friends? Literally, people came to the house to visit us for a meal maybe once a year.

Mum (Dr. Chalabi):
We didn’t have that [00:04:00] many friends. When I got married, I felt I have different commitments. And I started working. I come home tired. I want to look after my family. I was trying to enjoy you and your sister as much as I can.

Mona Chalabi:
You know the friends that kind of disappeared a little bit while they had kids, while you had kids. Did you feel like those friendships ever came back when me and my sister got older?

Mum (Dr. Chalabi):
Yeah, some of them, but I changed when I had my children. You become my world.

Mona Chalabi:
You don't feel any regret or sadness about any of your friendships that disappeared?

Mum (Dr. Chalabi):
No, no, no. No, because those who disappeared, they weren't good friends. The thing is, “friend” is a big, big, huge blanket to cover so much. It's like carrying a fruit basket or apple basket with you. You know, it was good apples in it, and you're happy to carry it all the way. But [00:05:00] then every time you open it because you need to have one, the good ones are no longer good. And so on, it's just, you drop some of them on your way to wherever you're going.

Mona Chalabi:
This is another one of my mum's analogies, and I don't know if I'm into it, but let's just go with it for a second. Maybe I have just dropped too many friends out of my basket. Maybe my friends dropped me out of their baskets. And who makes it into this weird fruit basket thing, anyway?

Mona Chalabi:
I put this to evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar.

Mona Chalabi:
Can you define what a friend is for me?

Robin Dunbar:
After 25 years trying to figure this out, I'm not sure I’m any nearer to a clear definition. I think in the end, it's about relationships in general.

Mona Chalabi:
Those [00:06:00] relationships can be people you regularly interact with or have positive feelings for. I mean, ideally it's both. And the more you interact with them or the more positive your feelings, the closer the friendship.

Mona Chalabi:
According to Dunbar, our apple basket of relationships has an average of 150 peoplein it. This 150 figure is referred to as Dunbar's number. Now, it might seem high, but what Dunbar is looking at is the number of relationships the brain can handle at one time. This includes family, best friends, acquaintances, workmates, even the bartender you know by name. So they’re friends… of a wide range of types. Or as my mum calls it, a big blanket.

Mona Chalabi:
Dunbar has studied social relationships since the '70s, first in primates, then in humans. He developed the number while studying primates' social networks. And that was when he noticed that the [00:07:00] size of those social groups was relative to the size of the primates' brains.

Robin Dunbar:
And so I just, out of, kind of idle curiosities, I thought, well, what happens if we stick human brains into this equation? And when we did that, it gave this figure of 150. And that number then just kept turning up all over the place.

Mona Chalabi:
The figure popped up in surprising places: offices, communes, militaries, even Christmas card lists. 150 is the estimated size of Neolithic farming villages in the Middle East, and 11th-century Britain.

Robin Dunbar:
The number of people that you have these kind of relationships of obligation and reciprocity, that have a historical depth, at the population level 150 is very, very consistent.

Mona Chalabi:
Dunbar says 150 for simplicity, but really, it's a range between 100 and 250, depending on several factors.

Robin Dunbar:
One is obviously personality. So introverts prefer to have fewer friends. They probably sort of hover around the 100 to [00:08:00] 150 mark.

Mona Chalabi:
If we think of time as our currency, we all have the same amount of it. But it's how we spend it that varies. And introverts:

Robin Dunbar:
They just prefer to kind of ladle that on thick, on a few friends, to make sure that they're there when they need them. Whereas extroverts, they tend to spread their social capital more thinly in order to have a larger number of friendships. They trade on the fact that if somebody stands them up, they just try somebody else.

Mona Chalabi:
Another factor is age.

Robin Dunbar:
The size of personal social networks over the lifespan increases as you grow through childhood, hits a peak somewhere in the late teens, early twenties at something approaching about 250. And then from about the thirties, surprisingly coinciding with reproduction, it drops to about 150 after which it remains very stable.

Mona Chalabi:
And that's exactly what happened to me. My [00:09:00] friends started having babies and started disappearing. Or actually, Dunbar would say they started shifting.

Mona Chalabi:
You see, within that 100 to 250 friend range, there are layers or concentric circles. The first layer is about 1.5 people. That often represents your parents or your romantic partner.

Robin Dunbar:
Then the next layer out is somewhere around about 5. We think of those as your intimate friends. The next layer out is 15, those you might think of as best friends. Then there’s a layer at 50, good friends. A layer at 150, just friends. A layer at 500, which we think of as acquaintances.

Mona Chalabi:
50 good friends! Five-zero! That feels like a whole lot of people! And I think this is the tier where I'm having the most trouble. And the research shows that you need to invest around 200 [00:10:00] hours over a three-month period to turn a “just friend” into one of those “good friends”.

Mona Chalabi:
Even if it is quicker to turn someone that you already know back into being a good friend, well, if Dunbar's 50 number is right, that is still a whole lot of time maintaining friendships, and I just don't know if I have that kind of time. I feel like I'm kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place here.

Mona Chalabi:
The more I think about it, part of the problem here might be that some of the people who were once part of that super-close friend group, maybe I just didn't do enough to keep them there.

Robin Dunbar:
Certainly our research shows very clearly that if you fail to maintain that level of investment,friendships start to die slowly, but [00:11:00] surely. Six months after you've not contacted them, they will have dropped down from being a good friend to maybe just a friend. And if it carries on for a couple of years, they will end up as an acquaintance.

Mona Chalabi:
But we haven't been meeting in person because of the pandemic. So does that mean that everyone's friendships are suffering right now?

Robin Dunbar: The short answer is yes.

Mona Chalabi: Oh God.

Mona Chalabi: But what about all the Zoom calls and my incessant meme-sharing during lockdown? Does this mean that all of my DMs were in vain?

Robin Dunbar: Digital media, and that even includes the telephone, are really just a sticking plaster.

Mona Chalabi: By the way, a plaster is a band-aid.

Robin Dunbar: So they seem to slow down the rate of decay, but they're not going to stop the inevitable happening. So once in a while, you just have to meet up again and give each other a hug. That sort of “resets” the relationship, if you like.

Mona Chalabi: And this is what I'm afraid of. Even though we can see each other in real life, [00:12:00] I worry that too much time has passed for my London friends and I to be able to reset our relationships. But I have to say there is something about this whole Dunbar number thing that just doesn't feel right to me. Having only five super-close friends in my top tier feels way too few. And 50 just good friends in the lower tier feels like way too many.

For me at least, it feels like I never had a life that really looked like the one he describes here. And that's even when I was feeling satisfied with my friendships. Maybe I was just never normal to begin with. Or maybe I’m misremembering my pre-COVID life.

To find out, I took out the old coloring pencils and decided to plot my friends.

We learned from Professor Dunbar that as humans, we can successfully maintain around [00:13:00] 150 friends. Those friends fall into different layers, depending on how close they are. So I wanted to see where my friends fall. And if you like, you can try this along with me.

Mona (drawing):
Grabbing some paper, and some colored pens. I am going to draw… a smallish circle, about the size of my fist. And then one…

Mona Chalabi:
So I drew a circle that represented my innermost friends and put in their initials. And then there was the next circle out, some more initials. And the next circle out beyond that.

Mona (drawing):
I'm actually going to write my sister down. Who else? In touch with regularly… God, there are so few people in New York. Most of them were elsewhere.

I'm just going to move on to the next category because I am [00:14:00] struggling a little bit.

Mona Chalabi:
It was so shocking to me that some people didn't immediately come to mind when I love them so deeply. In fact, I had to go into my phone to remind myself of the people I'd been texting recently.

Mona (drawing):
…It’s funny that I am revising occasionally my innermost circle. You would have thought those are the people that is impossible to forget…

I used a standard letter-sized piece of paper, and honestly, I wish I'd had a whole whiteboard. The thing turned into such a mess.

Mona (drawing):
Basically, the thing that I'm taking away from this is that there are two friends that were in the middle, who I've fallen out with over the space of the past year. Which is quite significant, to have lost two. But I guess the thing that is interesting is that, since they have left, two people who were in an, in an outer circle have moved in.

Mona Chalabi:
You know, you can think about the number of friends in the [00:15:00] abstract in terms of data and statistics and the Dunbar number. But then there's like, staring at a sheet of paper with the reality of your friendships on it. And that feels different. Because this isn't just a tally, there are names that I'm looking at in front of me.

So I asked Professor Dunbar what all his research taught him about his own friendships.
Robin Dunbar: It is the nature of social networks, particularly the friendship component, that they turn over with time. We don't retain the same friends throughout life. It's a very, very, very small number of people that we retain as lifelong friends.

When I took a closer look at my friend data, I realized that I have 9 super-close friends, which is way more than this Dunbar average of 5. So I'm friend-rich! But then, why do I still feel lonelier in London than I did in New York?

Well, the answer might be in my lower tier of quote unquote good friends. You see, [00:16:00] according to William Rawlins, friends serve three purposes: Someone to talk to, someone to depend on, and someone to have fun with. So, while Dunbar counts up how many friends we have, Rawlins’s research is way more interested in why we have those friends, what they do for us. So rather than me focusing on my totals here, I wanted to better understand how my friends make me feel.

My layer of super-good friends, the ones who are now mostly married, are great at satisfying the first two qualities. Or as Dunbar puts it:

Robin Dunbar:
There are those relationships where you know the person in some considerable depth, so that, when crisis happens, the cavalry will come racing over the hill straightaway.

Mona Chalabi:
But they're too busy for that other friend purpose, the fun part. See, my [00:17:00] lower layer of good friends in New York was huge, and they were the fun ones. I could call them up for a drink, to go dancing. They were the Friday night cavalry. But they weren't necessarily the Monday morning “I am so depressed” cavalry.

In London, I don't have enough of the fun friends. I had been really worried about how to have fun with my existing friends, but really, what I needed to do was to find my new floozies. While I'm digging into the numbers, I realized that I don't have enough friends to just have fun with. It wasn't simply the number of friends, it was also the type of friendships that weren't fulfilling my needs.

And I think this is a really important point. When we’re trying to figure out if something is normal, we tend to gravitate towards averages. But an average, which is what Dunbar's number is, doesn't actually tell us what normal [00:18:00] looks like. “Normal” and “average” are not the same thing. And I'm not even getting spiritual with you here, I'm getting statistical. See, the average just takes all of our deeply varied experiences and flattens them down into one number.

Let's say you have a group of people. Some of them, their favorite fruit is plums, and others prefer apricots. The average favorite fruit there is not a “plumcot”. That tells us nothing about the actual people we are looking at.

See, for me, it wasn't the average. It was the qualitative data that really helped me to understand what I needed. And if you did your own friendship mapping, when you look at your drawing, are you seeing what you need in life?

In doing this exercise, I noticed something else: That shifting that had happened between the layers. In losing two friends, I gained two others. So maybe I just needed to trust that I [00:19:00] will always have nine close friends. They just might not be the same nine friends, as sad as that is to accept.

Mona Chalabi:
Do you think that, like, changing friendships is just a natural part of life?

Mum (Dr. Chalabi):
Yeah. Yeah.

Mona Chalabi:
I was curious how my mum's friends fluctuated throughout her life.

Mona Chalabi:
How many friends did you have when you was in your twenties?

Mum (Dr. Chalabi):
Probably two or three.

Mona Chalabi:
What do your friendships look like now that you are in your seventies?

Mum (Dr. Chalabi):
Since I retired and… I have met recently some friends who, some of them are surprisingly younger than me, but they are very good, very much caring. And there are people that I didn't do much for them, but they seem to be doing a lot for me.

Mona Chalabi:
Do you have friends of different ages?

Mum (Dr. Chalabi):
Yeah. I have friends who are 20 years younger than me.

Mona Chalabi:
And her young friends, they’re her fun friends.

Mum (Dr. Chalabi):
We go out, and if I go out with them, [00:20:00] they just treat me like a princess. They love me and I love them. What more I want from them?

Mona Chalabi:
My mum has her fun-friend cavalry. I just need to build that back up in London for myself. It's going to take a while. And in the meantime, there's always my mum.

Mum (Dr. Chalabi):
Hi Mona, just seeing what you are doing tonight. I’d like to know if you are free to come look at paint samples with me. Call me back.

Mona Chalabi:
Am I Normal? is part of the TED Audio Collective. It’s hosted and produced by me, Mona Chalabi, [00:21:00] and it’s brought to you by TED and Transmitter Media. This episode was produced by JoAnn DeLuna and Wilson Sayre. Wilson is also our Managing Producer along with Lacy Roberts. Sara Nics is Transmitter’s Executive Editor, and Gretta Cohn is our Executive Producer. The TED Team is Michelle Quint, Banban Cheng, and Roxanne Hai Lash. Jennifer Nam is our fantastic researcher and fact checker. Additional production by Domino Sound.

That original theme song was by Sasami. Michelle Macklem is our sound designer and mix engineer. Additional help from Kim Buikema.

And special thanks to our very popular contributor, my mum.

For the transcripts and research that I talked about in this show, you can check out the link in the description.

We're back next week with more Am I Normal? So make sure you follow this show in your favorite podcast app. That way you can get every episode delivered straight to your device. And if you enjoyed the show and want to support us, [00:22:00] hit the share button and send it to someone else who wonders how many friends they should have.

You can find more about this episode’s guest, Robin Dunbar, at the University of Oxford.