People Don’t Make More Friends, They Just Replace Their Old Ones

We each have a limited capacity for maintaining friendships, so to make new friends, we have to let one go

Photo: Jenny Kaczorowski

For many college students, going off to school means dropping high school friends and romances in favor of new relationships. One way to explain this is that your college classmates are just so much cooler, smarter and more interesting than the people you knew before. Alternatively, say a team of researchers in a new study, this type of friend turnover could reflect something deeper about how people operate emotionally.

The scientists propose that everyone has their own personal capacity for maintaining relationships—there's only so much friendship in each of us to go around—and that when we meet new people we have to move someone else down the ranking. It's not that we don't like our old friends anymore. It's just that we've run out of relationship energy. Science magazine:

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.

Your number one friend, for example, is always going to get the same amount of your relationship energy, the scientists say, even though the person who occupies that “number one friend” slot can change.

With only a couple dozen people involved, the study wasn't the most exhaustive ever. But for anyone who has moved more than once would know, the results feel familiar. Whether this relationship capacity can grow or shrink with age, say the researchers, is still an open question.

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