You may have hundreds of friends on Facebook, but have you ever considered how many ‘real’ friends you have? A real friendship, outside of social networks, is a two-way street — but that’s true only half the time, according to a new study.
Conducted by researchers from Israel’s Tel Aviv University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), this joint study shows that only 50 percent of your buddies would actually consider you their own friend.
A friend indeed?
People have a very poor perception of friendship ties, and this limits their ability to influence their ‘friends,’ according to the research, recently published in PLoS One. If researchers can understand this limitation, companies and social groups that depend on social influence for collective action, information dissemination and product promotion, could improve their strategies and interventions.
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“It turns out that we’re very bad at judging who our friends are,” TAU’s Dr. Erez Shmueli, who led the study, said in a statement. “And, our difficulty determining the reciprocity of friendship significantly limits our ability to engage in cooperative arrangements.”
Additionally, the research team claims that “we can’t rely on our instincts or intuition. There must be an objective way to measure these relationships and quantify their impact.”
The researchers conducted social experiments and analyzed the data from other studies to determine the percentage of reciprocal friendships and their impact on human behavior. The team also examined six friendship surveys from some 600 students in Israel, Europe and the US to assess friendship levels and expectations of reciprocity.
They then developed an algorithm that examines several objective features of a perceived friendship (that is, the number of common friends or the total number of friends) and is able to distinguish between the two different kinds of friendship: Unidirectional or reciprocal.
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“We found that 95 percent of participants thought that their relationships were reciprocal,” Shmueli says. “If you think someone is your friend, you expect him or her to feel the same way. But in fact, that’s not the case — only 50 percent of those polled matched up in the bidirectional friendship category.”
A matter of influence
Why is this important? According to Dr. Shmueli, influence is the name of the game: “Reciprocal relationships are important because of social influence.” For example, friendship pressure far outweighs money in terms of motivation. “Those pressured by reciprocal friends exercised more and enjoyed greater progress than those with unilateral friendship ties.”
The researchers found that their “friendship algorithm” determined with a high level of accuracy the reciprocal or unidirectional nature of a friendship. Says Shmueli: “Our algorithm not only tells us whether a friendship is reciprocal or not. It also determines in which direction the friendship is ‘felt’ in unilateral friendships.”
Shmueli conducted the study with TAU‘s Dr. Laura Radaelli, in collaboration with Prof. Alex Pentland and Abdullah Almatouq of MIT.
Photos: Ben Duchac