Why (Some) Friends Fade Away In Times Of Need

Yesterday was spent feasting out on the patio of a friend’s home. She graciously made a delicious spread of ham, potato salad, spinach and strawberry salad and roasted asparagus. (Be jealous). As I was eating, my mind wandered back to old friends that have faded out of my life.

Picture by Rebela_wanted

Picture by Rebela_wanted

In the weeks following my cancer diagnosis, I was met with a flood of visitors, friends texting/writing on my Facebook wall and helped us out. It was a wonderful outpouring of love, sometimes from people I would not have assumed would have stopped by.

And yet…

And yet, a few people stopped returning my calls, said the absolute wrong thing or stood me up. Boy, did that sting!

Then I learned about Dunbar’s number. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar conducted a study and determined that there is a maximum number of relationships our brains can handle.

It is suggested that the number of neocortical neurons limits the organism’s information-processing capacity and that this then limits the number of relationships that an individual can monitor simultaneously. When a group’s size exceeds this limit, it becomes unstable and begins to fragment.

Pretty crazy, right? While it hasn’t totally removed the pain of losing friendships, it has given me an answer to “why?” Some of those former friends were people I was just starting to build a closer relationship.

And there is a specific number!

“Interestingly”, he says, “the literature suggests that 150 is roughly to the number of people you could ask for a favour and expect to have it granted. Functionally, that’s quite similar to apes’ core social groups.”

Perhaps I was friend number 151; just far out enough to be dropped out of that person’s mental social circle. As a “newcomer” to their circle, there wasn’t enough of a direct tie between us to make him/her remember me.

Learning this made it easier to forgive my old friends for fading away. I look at it like this: the friends that left just made brain space available for new and better friends. Our social circles are in a state of constant flux and I’m open to riding out those ebbs and flows.

  1. GailR

    New Friends – yes, for sure. Better friends – maybe not. Maybe different types of friends for the different places we are in our lives.

    But what do you call someone you have known for most of your life? You are not acquaintances, nor complete strangers but they are not someone you could comfortably ask for help, although they would probably help if they found out about the situation. If they lived near me, they could be a neighbor, a co-worker, a classmate, a member of the same organization. Any suggestions?

  2. I’m surprised the number is that high!

  3. What an interesting idea. And yes, I am jealous of your meal – sounds delish :)

  4. Great point, Stacey! In the studies I skimmed over, it said that number applies to any sort of relationship. The strongest bonds are with people we’ve known the longest and see the most often, which is family however you may define that.

  5. That is such an interesting number! I had heard it before, but hadn’t put it together with the thoughts of friends coming in and out of life.
    In Australia, they tease us Americans because they say we use the term ‘friend’ too loosely. For them, a friend is someone you’ve known for decades, and for outsiders, it can take *forever* to feel like you’re in.
    I think we’re different as a society because Americans tend to move a lot, and we need to make friends (relatively quickly) to function.
    Food for thought!


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