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It's not you, it's my predetermined number of relationships I can maintain

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Friends come and go, but the number of close friends you have may remain surprisingly constant. That's the main result from a new study in which researchers used cellphone data from British secondary school students as they transitioned to university to track how many close social connections they maintained. The research also suggests people have distinct social "signatures," or patterns of intimacy with others, which they tend to maintain over time.

Regardless of how many Facebook friends a person has, most people maintain only a small number of emotionally intense relationships, says Jari Saram§ki of the Aalto University School of Science in Espoo, Finland, a computational scientist who studies social networks. Studies show these close relationships are vital to our health and well-being. But they do have a cost: time and effort that take away from work, personal time or other relationships. So individual differences in the number of close ties likely reflect each person's ability to divvy out the finite resources of time, communication and emotional investment are required to sustain relationships, scientists say.

Given the importance and difficulty of creating bonds that sustain us, Saram§ki and colleagues wanted to know what would happen to the social networks of students as they transitioned from secondary school to university, a period of significant flux. They recruited 24 students ages 17 to 19, half male, half female, and gave each an 18-month contract from a major mobile phone company with 500 free monthly minutes and unlimited texts. All the students lived in the same city in Britain when the study began; by the end, 10 had left for universities in other parts of England. When given the phones, each student completed a questionnaire listing the names and phone numbers of all their unrelated friends and work and school acquaintances, as well as all their known relatives. Then, they ranked all of those individuals on a 1 to 10 scale of emotional closeness, with 10 signifying someone "with whom you have a deeply personal relationship."

Each student was asked to fill out the same questionnaire again nine months later and a third time after 18 months. Higher "emotional closeness" ratings on the surveys paralleled number and duration of calls throughout the study, reassuring the researchers frequent phone calls were a reasonable indicator of intimacy. By analyzing the students' phone invoices, the researchers were able to construct a ranking system for each contact based on the frequency and duration of calls.

Although there were high levels of turnover in the names in each individual's network, the basic characteristics of the network itself-how many people a person called and how much time they spent on the phone with them-remained the same throughout the 18-month period. For example, a person's top three contacts typically got 40 to 50 per cent of the person's calls, the authors reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


-- Science / AAAS

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2014 D4

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