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As a child, did you ever find yourself asking someone to be your friend, or perhaps being asked the question by another person? It’s heartwarming and a little funny to think back on, since as adults, we’ve come to find that actions speak louder than works, and friendships are developed not with explicit permission, but with the constant reciprocation of interaction and care.

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As we age, the word “friend” soon becomes a word to describe the many people in our lives we care for, on a variety of levels. With some we share our world, with others just the surface of it, but in every instance, we are well aware of who to consider our friends, who is merely an acquaintance, who is a stranger, and who, dare I say, we even consider our enemy.

It feels good to have friends — the idea that someone can not only tolerate you, but is willing to put in the work to be around you, to listen to you. It goes without saying that, if you think of someone as your friend, they too think of you as their friend. But a recent study suggests otherwise.

Led by researchers from MIT, the study discovered that about 40 percent of the time, only half of perceived friendships are mutual. Of course, this may cause you to start scanning your friends list, wondering with worry which ones secretly laugh on the inside when you refer to them as your friend.

The study looked at friendship ties in 84 subjects between the ages of 23 and 38, all of whom were taking part in a business management class. The participants were requested to rank how close they were with each individual in the class on a scale of 0 to 5, with 0 meaning “I do not know this person,” 3 meaning “friend,” and 5 meaning “one of my best friends.” What the researchers discovered was that, although 94 percent of the participants anticipated their feelings to be reciprocated, a mere 53 percent of them actually were.

Though the study is limited by its minute sample size, the results remain consistent with data from many other friendship studies from the past decade, including over 92,000 subjects that revealed reciprocity rates at 34 t0 53 percent.

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There’s quite a few questions to be raised given results like these. How, as adults who’ve been through plenty of relationship ups and down with people, can we still not clearly define friendship? What does this say about our own self image? One of the study’s researchers, computational social science researcher Alex Pentland, believes it may be the result of our inability to correctly read people as a result of our own denial. We want to maintain a favourable self image, and so we refuse to believe that anyone we may like doesn’t like us back.

“People don’t like to hear that the people they think of as friends don’t name them as friends,” he explained.

When you think back to those times you agreed to become friends with someone, it was like signing a treaty on the playground. You knew you weren’t supposed to lie to them, ever. You knew you had to stick up for them, always. You knew you had to trust them, even with your favorite toy, or your favorite shirt. You’d do anything for them.

But we can likely all attest to the fact that the circumstances in our adolescence don’t quite match up to those in adulthood. We know that people screw up, that sometimes promises are broken, that sometimes a borrowed shirt gets ruined, and that you simply can’t be there for everything; can’t do anything for them — though our intentions are always pure, and it’s the thought that ultimately counts.

But we’ve also become a bit jaded as adults. Social media, for instance, pushes friendship as a commodity, causing us to create a pretty distorted idea of what makes someone an actual “friend.”

“Treating friends like investments or commodities is anathema to the whole idea of friendship,” explains Ronald Sharp, a professor of English at Vassar College. “It’s not about what someone can do for you, it’s who and what the two of you become in each other’s presence.”

He goes on to suggest that, for many of our friendships, we invest far too much time communicating over social media, and perhaps this detachment from reality, from face-to-face interaction, is where the perceptions are skewed.

“People are so eager to maximise efficiency of relationships that they have lost touch with what it is to be a friend,” he noted.

So what can we learn from this? According to a recent study led by Dunbar, we’re really only capable of maintaining five close friendships at a time. “People may say they have more than five but you can be pretty sure they are not high-quality friendships,” he said.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway in a time filled with such pressures to gain followers on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and so on is that these friends lists are not meant to be translated into real friends in real life. While one of your friends may have hundreds if not thousands more followers than you on one of these platforms, don’t sweat it, because in real life, you’re likely pretty equal when it comes to the real friends you have in your life.

Furthermore, let go of the idea that someone with a big following has a greater impact. Because if the study proves right, half of their so-called friends likely wont reciprocate the feeling.

“We shouldn’t assume people with a high number of social ties are ‘influencers’,”Pentland explained. “Such people are no better and often are worse than average people at exerting social influence. Our results suggest that this is because many of those ties either are not reciprocal or go in the wrong direction, and therefore won’t lead to effective persuasion.”

Pentland suggests we steer clear of seeking out an individual with lots of friends, and look for groups of people with a similar number of friends, and many friends in common. Their connections will be much more real.


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