Do we put a limit on our close social networks?

New UK study into the behaviour of individuals across various social practices shows we each have our own social signature

For leaders in the marketing industry, there’s no such thing as having too many friends in your social network. But a new study has shown that people inadvertently limit the number of close social contacts.

The persistence of social signatures in human communication study by researchers from a range of universities including the University of Oxford, University of Chester, UK and Aalto University, Finland found people often take a ‘one in, one out’ approach when forming a group of friends they consider to be in close contact with. Each individual's 'social signature' - the pattern of their interactions with different friends and family - varies but remains persistent despite the number of new friends they make.

“Although social communication is now easier than ever, it seems that our capacity for maintaining emotionally close relationships is finite,” said Felix Reed-Tsochas, James Martin Lecturer in Complex Systems at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. “While this number varies from person to person, what holds true in all cases is that at any point individuals are able to keep up close relationships with only a small number of people, so that new friendships come at the expense of ‘relegating’ existing friends.”

The study looked at patterns of communications between participants and their close friends/not so close friends. It found even the efficiencies of digital communication such as mobile phones didn’t alter an individual's ability to expand their close social network.

“This study used a novel combination of questionnaires and mobile phone data to show that people have a distinctive pattern of communicating with their family and friends, and that this pattern persists even people make new friends as they go to university or work,” said Dr Roberts, from the University of Chester’s Psychology Department.

“Our results are likely to reflect limitations in the ability of humans to maintain many emotionally close relationships, both because of limited time and because the emotional capital individuals can allocate between family members and friends is finite.”

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