I’m in Trouble – I Have Fewer Friends Than I Think :(


Alex “Sandy” Pentland, the director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program, shared some recent research results that looked at how people view their friendships vs. the reality of those friendships, and how that perception could affect one person’s ability to change another person’s behavior.

The research study, titled “Are You Your Friends’ Friend? Poor Perception of Friendship Ties Limits the Ability to Promote Behavioral Change“, discovered that people are typically poor at perceiving the directionality of their friendship ties and that this can significantly limit their ability to engage in cooperative arrangements.

When people consider another person a “friend”, they generally assume that the other person also thinks of them as a “friend”. In other words, friendship is reciprocal. But the data reveals that while most people assume friendships are two-way, in reality only about half of friendships are indeed reciprocal.


Are the researchers suggesting that Bruce Springsteen, Bill Gates, Ellen Degeneres, and Anna Kendrick don’t consider me as a “friend”?

And closer to home, what about my wife and neighbors and “friends” from college?

Pentland states that the inability to know the true nature of a relationship may seem like an interesting but minor finding, but this large proportion of asymmetric friendships translates to a major effect on the ability of an individual to persuade others to cooperate or change their behavior.

Really, a minor finding? Not knowing who my “friends” are could be devastating (well actually not that devastating, if the statistics are right, I would go from 8 to 4 friends).

But let’s get back to the research study.

I’m sure the study wasn’t meant to make us (me) feel bad, but was designed to look at how the nature of a relationship impacts the ability of someone to influence another person’s behavior.

The researchers examined the effectiveness of a fitness “buddy system” program, and found that when a one-way friendship tie exists from the buddy (the person applying peer pressure) to the subject (the person receiving the pressure), programs were more effective than when friendship tie was from the subject to the buddy. While it is best to have a reciprocal friendship, having a buddy who thinks of their subject as a friend is the next best relationship.

To overcome this limitation of trying to use peer pressure to influence behavior, the researchers discovered that two simple findings can be applied to more effectively achieve behavioral change.

The first is that we shouldn’t assume people with a high number of social ties are “influencers.” Such people are no better and often are worse than average people at exerting social influence. The reason is that  many of those ties are not reciprocal in nature. Instead of looking for influencers with lots of friends, look for buddies that are peers, with about the same number of friends and many friends in common.

Second, if you want to be a corporate change agent, you may not want to start by focusing on people who “know everyone” in the organization. Instead, begin by building consensus with peers who are part of your interaction networks.

So while the research may provide useful guidance as to how to set up employer programs that may help change an employee’s behavior, it doesn’t give any advice on what someone (me) should do to make sure that there is at least some reciprocity in my friendships.

Maybe I need to go back and read Dale Carnegie’s classic, “How to Win Friends and Influence People“, written in 1936. It seems like he knew the solution to both problems (getting friends as well as influencing them), long before this research came out of MIT.




Published by

Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *