A study published in the scientific journal PLOS One discovered that people do a surprisingly poor job of perceiving who their true friends are. In fact, researchers found that just 50 percent of friendships are mutual, meaning that only half of your friends like you as much as you think they do.
In order to study how individuals perceive friendship, researchers conducted a self-reported survey of 84 students ages 23 to 38 who were enrolled in an undergraduate college class on applied management. They asked participants to score all of the students in their class on a scale from 0 to 5. A 0 meant “I don’t know this person,” a 3 meant “friend,” and a 5 meant “one of my best friends.” The participants were also asked to guess how their classmates would score them in return.
The results show most people assume someone who they consider to be a friend feels the same way about them: 94 percent of participants expected people who they identified as a friend to rank them in the same way. However, researchers found that almost half of the friendships were not actually reciprocated. Although this is just one small study, the findings are consistent with previous research on the subject of friendship. A 2011 study found that 45 percent of friendships are mutual, while a 2006 study found that just 34 percent of friends feel the same way about one another.
“People don’t like to hear that the people they think of as friends don’t name them as friends,” researcher and co-author Alex Pentland told The New York Times. According to him, this inability to understand who your real friends are could be related to the fact that many have trouble defining what friendship really is.
If this study has you worried that you may not have as many friends are you thought, don’t fret. According to evolutionary psychologist Robin I.M. Dunbar, there are layers of friendship, and most people are actually incapable of maintaining a large number of meaningful friendships at one time. “There’s a limited amount of time and emotional capital we can distribute, so we only have five slots for the most intense type of relationship,” Dunbar says. “People may say they have more than five, but you can be pretty sure they’re not high-quality friendships.”
While you may not have the largest quantity of friends, it's the quality of those relationships that really matters. Round up the people in your life who you truly care about (and who reciprocate those feelings), and celebrate your special bond.
Almaatouq A, Radaelli L, Pentland A, Shmueli E. Are You Your Friends' Friend? Poor Perception of Friendship Ties Limits the Ability to Promote Behavioral Change. PLoS One. 2016;11(3):e0151588. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0151588
Aharony N, Pan W, Ip C, Khayal I, Pentland A. Social fMRI: Investigating and Shaping Social Mechanisms in the Real World. Pervasive Mob Comput. 2011;7(6):643-549. doi:10.1016/j.pmcj.2011.09.004
Eagle N, Pentland, A. Reality Mining: Sensing Complex Social Systems. Pers Ubiquit Comput. 2006;10:255–268. doi:10.1007/s00779-005-0046-3