Yes, your friends are more popular than you

This post was originally written for The Startup.

Fish in Crystal Palace.

Fish in Crystal Palace.

It never ceases to amaze me that seemingly every person I’ve ever been friends with has had multiple other friends also called ‘Rosie.’ Time after time, I’ve texted someone’s new phone and heard ‘Which Rosie is this?

It amazes me because I’ve never really known more than one person with the same name at a time, even common names. Yet I’ve had friends who knew three, even four people called Rosie.

Since leaving college, I’ve realised how hard it is to meet new people. I’ve kept in touch with a few people from school, although we see each other maybe once a year. In London, like most big cities, it’s easy to amass hordes of acquaintances. But getting close to anyone — the kind of close where you stop worrying about judgement and have each other’s backs — is difficult to achieve. For the majority of my time in this city, I’ve coasted along with approximate friendships with people I’ve worked with, lived with, or dated.

Yet it has always seemed like everyone else has managed to side-step this problem, a consistent source of frustration.

There are few feelings more isolating than the sense that you alone are lacking some fundamental social skill.

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Your friends have more friends than you

But the truth is, whoever you are, your friends probably have more friends than you do.

This is known as the ‘friendship paradox’ and it’s an idea first put forward by sociologist Scott Feld in 1991. When Feld looked at networks of social relationships, he found that each individual’s friends had, on average, more friends than them. For the maths behind this paradox, see here.

The reason for the friendship paradox is simple. In any social context, a small number of individuals will each have a lot of friends.

Let’s assume the Pareto Principle holds true here and 20% of people account for roughly 80% of the friendships. The other 80% of people account for 20% of friendships.

That means any given individual is more likely to be friends with one of more popular people. Your friendship circle probably includes at least a few very sociable individuals.

In a similar vein, on average, your sexual partners probably have more sexual partners than you. Your Twitter followers have more followers and your Facebook friends have more friends. If you’re a scientist, your co-authors likely have more co-authors (and other metrics of success like citations) than you. During a pandemic, your friends are likely to get ill sooner than you.

In any network where people are interconnected, some people will have more connections than others. Most will have fewer. If it seems like you’re in the latter group, you’re not abnormal — you’re in the majority.