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The Friendship Paradox and the Illusion of Loneliness
Why you think everyone is partying without you
Who goes to more parties—you or others?
You might think that most people would reply, “me.”
Generally, people hold a high opinion of themselves.
A large body of research has found that people tend to believe they are more intelligent, trustworthy, and have a better sense of humor than others. A recent study found that people believe they use ChatGPT more critically, ethically and efficiently than others.
People think they are better drivers than average, students think they are better students than average, professors think they are better professors than average. This is known as the “better than average” effect.
Intriguingly, people are selectively overconfident in their abilities that will garner higher status in their specific social environment. For example, people in individualistic cultures like the U.S. overestimate their ability to lead. But people in collectivistic cultures in Asia overestimate their ability to listen.
We even think we are better than ourselves.
One study asked participants how often they engaged in kind and cooperative acts to help others. A month and a half later, researchers showed these same people their own scores. But the researchers told them that these scores were provided by “their average peer.” So the participants didn’t know they were looking at their own scores.
The researchers asked them to rate themselves again. People rated themselves as higher than the score they were shown, claiming they were superior to themselves.
People also believe others are more susceptible to mass media influence than they themselves are. We overestimate the influence media has on others and underestimate the influence media has on ourselves. This tendency increases people’s support for censorship, because we think others are sheep who can’t handle certain information (or “misinformation”) while we are independent thinkers who can critically evaluate the information we encounter.
Likewise, people believe they are more immune to social biases than others. A recent study found that people think others are more likely than themselves to make decisions based on their preconceived notions and preexisting beliefs. And people believe others are less willing than themselves to update their views in light of new information.
The researchers concluded, “The more strongly people believed that biases widely existed, the more inclined they were to ascribe biases to others but not themselves.”
But there is one aspect of ourselves where we tend to believe we fall short: Our social lives.
Research indicates that people believe that others are more popular, attend more parties, dine out more, have more friends, spend more time with family, occupy wider social networks, and possess larger social circles than themselves.
Out of curiosity, I ran a Twitter poll and found similar results:
About 60 percent of respondents said they eat more meals alone compared to others their own age
About 85 percent of respondents said they have fewer friends than others their own age
This presents a puzzle.
Even though we have a pervasive tendency to hold self-serving views about ourselves, we believe our social lives are more impoverished than others.
Most of us think our “social CV” is worse than average.
Why is this?
Our standards are biased by extremely visible and prominent people. Even among our social circle, the people we pay most attention to are the popular ones. They set a benchmark in our minds for what other people are up to.
Suppose you have 10 friends. Three are popular, sociable, love to travel, and frequently share photos of themselves and their adventures online. Another 3 are homebodies who seldom go out, who you visit only a couple of times per year. And the remaining 4 are similar to you, with average social lives.
The way our minds tend to work is that when we are asked to think about our own social lives, we don’t compare it to the 3 homebodies. We rarely see them, and thus they are not weighted in our calculation. We place some weight on our 4 friends who are similar to ourselves, and who we see more often.
And we place a lot of weight on the remaining 3 jet-setter friends, who loom large in our minds and in our social media feeds. Thus, we compare ourselves primarily against those 3 popular friends and assess our lives as duller lives than average.
We fall prey to what Daniel Kahneman has termed “What You See Is All There Is.” The idea is that we make decisions based on what is currently visible, not considering that there is information we are not seeing. We consider the known knowns, but not the known unknowns.
A while back, I was at an outdoor market with someone who remarked how large the crowd was. Then he said he’d just read an article about how the economy was tanking, and how that article must have been incorrect because of how many people were out spending money at this place.
We then paused and remembered: We were not seeing all of the people who are at home not spending money. We saw only the people who were unaffected by the economic downturn.
Another time, I visited a friend in his home country. He told me that the obesity rate was extremely high there. I looked around the shopping district and said, “It doesn’t seem that high.” He replied, “They usually stay at home. You aren’t going to see them out and about.” I wasn’t considering what I wasn’t seeing, only what I was.
This brings us to a related concept: The Friendship Paradox.
On average, your friends have more friends than you do, your Twitter followers have more followers than you do, and your sex partners have had more sex partners than you.
How is this possible?
For the same reason that when Warren Buffet enters an auditorium, the average net worth of the attendees rises by a few million dollars.
Again, suppose you have ten friends. Nine of them have 10 friends, just like you.
But your tenth friend is a super-connector, and has 100 friends. This means (on average) your friends have 19 friends, while you have only 10.
Similarly, while you may have had, say, 10 sex partners, one of those partners might have had 50, thus raising the average number among your partners to a level that is higher than your own.
These Pareto phenomena warp “averages” in our social lives.
A small number of people account for a large chunk of what we see online, too. Eighty percent of tweets are produced by only 10 percent of Twitter users.
A while back I read about an idea called the “1 percent rule” on the Internet:
1 percent of people create new content
9 percent contribute to the content (e.g., through comments, likes, reactions, etc.)
90 percent are lurkers and just view the content
We pay attention to those super-connectors who drive the friendship paradox. And overlook the more ordinary and less extraverted people in our circles.
Our most adventurous peers tell us their experiences rafting, skydiving, hiking in the Himalayas, and they share it online. By comparing ourselves to such high standards, people set themselves up for unflattering evaluations of their own social lives.
In contrast, people seldom post photos of themselves eating lunch alone or binge-watching a TV show. The shut-ins and introverts are not as visible. And thus we don’t compare ourselves to them.
The researchers of these findings provide an example from college life:
“Anyone studying alone in a dormitory is likely to be aware of rowdier classmates partying down the hall; those same partiers, however, are unlikely to think much about those studying behind closed doors. Both groups are, therefore, likely to underestimate the prevalence of [studiers] and overestimate the prevalence of [partiers].”
The studious pupils aren’t thinking about all the other lonely souls in the dorm also pouring over their assigned readings. They think everyone is at the loud party except them.
Maybe this isn’t a big deal—after all, some people might be fine with having a less active social life.
But the paper also found that people do in fact desire a richer social life. They wished they attended more parties, had more friends, dined out more frequently, had a larger social network, and communicated more often with their families.
Furthermore, when people believed that their social lives were more impoverished than others, they reported lower levels of life satisfaction.
Having a more realistic view of the lives of others can alleviate negative feelings brought on by comparing ourselves to the most extraverted and visible people we know.
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