You Can Have Up to 15 Best Friends - Says M.I.T

Rachel Yerks

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When I look at wedding photos and see the bride surrounded by ten plus bridesmaids, I wonder if I’ll have enough close friends to fill in as mine. I can only think of two close friends I’d be absolutely gutted about if they missed my wedding. Not that I’m upset about having two. I wouldn’t trade those two for ten others.

Still. I struggled to believe people who claim to have ten “best” friends could have as meaningful relationships with them as I do with my one best friend and other, very close friend. It just doesn’t seem realistic.

After doing research as one does when feeling petty and slightly jealous, I found an interesting academic review by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, located in Cambridge, MA. Needless to say, I was both vindicated and surprised.

According to MIT’s review, human beings are only able to have their closest, most meaningful connections with five individuals. That’s surprising.

But perhaps more surprising is the maximum “social net” is 150 — which is the number of relationships that one person can maintain enough to call them meaningful relationships.

150 people? That’s no small feat. Maybe that's possible for students in Cambridge, but not where I went to school. When we see those people with large groups of friends, some of those friends are best friends. The rest are in the social net, serving as beloved extras that receive less of our brain’s emotional connecting power.

These extras may fall on the second level down from best friends, or they could fall on the outskirts, like that friend from high school you reconnect with every other year.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's review was created as an easy to read version of original, already popularized research by Robin Dunbar, famous for his “Dunbar Numbers”. These Dunbar numbers dictate relationship capabilities. I didn’t want you to miss out on the juicy numbers. According to Dunbar’s research, one person can maintain*:

Yes, these numbers are on average. Some people are biologically capable of maintaining and managing more [or less] relationships — to each their own. I guess you can have 15 best friends — that is… if one friend isn’t included in your first tier, which would make them above other friends.

Still. 1,500? That’s a lot of space to utilize after family and close friends.“Why would I want to utilize all that space?” you might wonder. As a somewhat extreme introvert, I needed to know what I was missing out on. Turns out, it’s a simple, obvious answer.

The more people you are acquainted with, the more emotional diversity you experience. Best friends, close friends, and outskirts friends have different capabilities and can uniquely support your different emotional needs. Dr. Bonior, a clinical psychologist, stated “most people have one person that edges out the others, yet they do have a handful of people close to them”.

These other, close people make up for what that one close person, or other close people, lacks in regards to their relationships with you. They fill in the empty slots in your egg carton. The missing cards in your playing deck. Whatever metaphor you’d like, insert here.“It’s important that you really think about ways each person fills a role for you.”

Your biking buddy, Carly, is great for Sunday fun on the trails, but she’s not someone you’d bring shopping with you. Maybe that’s more Sam’s speed.

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Another way to look at it — that one good-for-nothing-except-clubbing friend you love can stay! Their purpose is to keep you company while partying. They aren’t needed to console you if your great-great-aunt passes away. Unless you wanted them to be. Then maybe the clubbing attribute isn’t valuable enough for you to keep them in your relationship arsenal.

Each person has unique attributes and abilities to contribute to your life through relationships. Collect them. Dunbar found that introverts had, on average, similar social net capacity for connections — introverts just weren’t utilizing the space. Dunbar and I assure you: you’ve got the space. And you may need bridesmaids or groomsmen someday. You’ll definitely be able to utilize those connections somehow, especially in today’s interconnected world. Good luck out there.

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