Half of your friends lost in seven years

May 28, 2009

Had a good chat with someone recently? Has a good friend just helped you to do up your home? Then you will be lucky if that person still does that in seven years time. Sociologist Gerald Mollenhorst investigated how the context in which we meet people influences our social network. One of his conclusions: you lose about half of your close network members every seven years.

You are stuck with your family but you can choose your . Really? For years sociologists have argued to what extent personal networks are the result of your own preferences or the context in which you can meet someone. Would your best friend have been your best friend if you had not been in the same class for three years? And if you had not got to know your wife via mutual friends but in a dodgy bar then would she still have become and remained your wife?

In order to answer such questions, Mollenhorst conducted a survey under 1007 people aged between 18 and 65 years. Seven years later the respondents were contacted once again and 604 people were reinterviewed. They answered questions such as: Who do you talk with, regarding important personal issues? Who helps you with DIY in your home? Who do you pop by to see? Where did you get to know that person? And where do you meet that person now?

Limited in your choices

Mollenhorst investigated, for example, whether the in which contacts are made influences the degree of similarity between partners, friends and acquaintances. It was expected that the influence of social contexts on similarity in relationships would be stronger for weak relationships than for strong ones. After all, you are less fussy about your choice of acquaintances than your choice of partner. In relationships with partners, Mollenhorst indeed found more similarity than in relationships with friends. Yet interestingly, the influence of the social context on similarity did not differ between partners, friends and acquaintances. This reveals how strongly opportunities to meet influence the social composition of personal networks.

With his research Mollenhorst has confirmed that personal networks are not formed solely on the basis of personal choices. These choices are limited by opportunities to meet. Another strong indication for this came from the fact that people often choose friends from a context in which they have previously chosen a friend. Moreover, the extent to which our friends know each other strongly depends on the context in which people meet each other.

Individualism

Many sociologists assume that our society is becoming increasingly individualistic. For example, it is held that we strictly separate work, clubs and friends. Mollenhorst established, however, that public contexts such as work or the neighbourhood and private contexts frequently overlap each other.

Furthermore, Mollenhorst's research reveals that networks are not shrinking, whereas American research reveals such a decline. Over a period of seven years the average size of personal networks was found to be strikingly stable. However, during the course of seven years we replace many members of our network with other people. Only thirty percent of the discussion partners and practical helpers still held the same position seven years later. Only 48 percent were still part of the network. Therefore value the friends you have. As long as you have them that is.

Gerald Mollenhorst's research is part of the project Where friends are made. Contexts, Contacts, Consequences, set up by Beate Völker. She received a Vidi grant from NWO in 2001 and used this to set up her project.

Source: Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research

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dbren
5 / 5 (2) May 28, 2009
Hmmm... All my close friends from high school (with one exception) are still my close friends now. I graduated in 1977. Perhaps one factor is that we all still live within 50 miles of our former high school. A lot of people nowadays tend to move around, and that makes it awfully hard to keep in touch with people. We're all getting together (along with some newer friends) to play poker this weekend. Wish me luck - last time I lost $15. (Yeah, we still make about the same bets we did in high school, too.)
bmcghie
not rated yet May 29, 2009
@dhughes: Same here. Aside from the 3 close friends I have tried to stay close to all the way from elementary school... everybody else has just drifted away. I now find myself surrounded only by people who enjoy the activities I do: rock climbing. I'm the youngest by 7 years, 23 years removed from the geezer. But I would say they're some of the best friends I've ever had.
docknowledge
5 / 5 (1) May 29, 2009
Before I getting to my real point, let me just rail about the lack of quality in scientific and journalistic editing. The project is obviously "Where Friends are Made". (http://www.uu.nl/...335.html (search in Google, if link doesn't work)) Maybe all those rag newspapers do deserve to be shut down after all.
docknowledge
not rated yet May 29, 2009
Anyhow, as interesting as Mollenhorst's work is, it seems as though it's superficial in some ways. And raising many questions, where it isn't.

There are different kinds of friends, different needs. Is a lifelong friend best, or is it just laziness, falling into the same (perhaps bad) patterns? How many "close" friends does one need? What's an ideal mix of long-term friends to short-term?

And one has to take a look at the questions asked. Who do I ask for DYI? Nobody, I generally don't know people who are better, say, cooks or gardeners than I am. Certainly not any who have similar gardening goals. Who do I "pop by to see"? In an area where going to see anyone generally means getting in the car? I don't "pop by" to see anyone -- I phone ahead.

And then there's context. I have had two friends in Second Life for over a year. For Second Life, that's a very long time.
Bob_B
5 / 5 (1) May 29, 2009
I know military brats are a small percentage of the population, but measure how many friends they have over their life. Yes, we did meet quite a few, but there (for me and many like me) are zero life long friends we have.

Being married to another 'brat' I met in high school is about it.

Her brother, a social studies professor came up with a solution, but the military would never use it: rotate 10,000 to 20,000 families at a time, rather than a single family to some location where everyone is unknown, again.

It isn't easy being a loner for us brats, but it is normal. We do not fit the mold of this study.
CEM
5 / 5 (1) May 30, 2009
I wonder how sites like Facebook will alter this? It's a lot easier to keep in touch with, or at least to check in on, friends from a long time ago.
Au-Pu
not rated yet May 31, 2009
The work is interesting.
Firstly no one can have more than four or five very close or good friends. Because to maintain a high level of friendship requires an investment of time with them.
Most people have one, two or three very close friends.
We have many more social friends, whether work or community or otherwise related.
And we can have unlimited numbers of casual acquaintances.
The internet deludes us into believing casual acquaintances are our real friends.
Real friends are people you actually spend time with and who's company you enjoy
Real friends in my experience are those who are still with you after five years. But I am willing to accept Mollenhorst's 7 years as the bench mark.
Groups of social friends drift in and out of your circle of friends all the time.
Some do not last long at all.
The average life expectancy of these new social friends is in my experience roughly about 18 months.
So you need to be careful how much you allow them to influence your decisions and attitudes.
The internet is even worse. Internet friends are in fact almost fantasy friends. What you could call "Claytons friends, i.e. the sort of friend you are having when you are not having a friend", because most have never met each other and until they do they cannot ever be e real friend.
I think Mollenhurst needs to do some follow-up work and to expand it to cover the volatility of friendships.
He should look at them in various groups with distinct academic and or financial or social commonalities and review them every 2 to 2 1/2 years and assess changes and rates of change over say 10 years.
I think his work could be of enormous value in many areas if it is comprehensive enough.