Sad and paradoxical in equal measure, social science tells us that our friends are more popular, attractive, and disease-prone than we are. Janice Lau takes a look.
Social science is often overlooked as being a ‘soft science,’ as opposed to the ‘hard sciences’ of physics and chemistry. However, what can social science offer? One answer: an explanation into common day-to-day social phenomena. Let’s look at the science.
A sociologist named Scott Feld observed a phenomenon called the “Friendship Paradox” that states that our friends are, on average, more popular than ourselves. This seems counter-intuitive, how could it be true that for most people, their friends are more popular than them on average? However, the mathematics of the Friendship Paradox are sound. Ultimately this phenomenon relates to something called class-size paradoxes, whereby extremely popular individuals have a disproportionately large number of friends, making all those friends feel relatively deprived. On the other hand, the people with very few friends only make those very few people feel relatively advantaged. Think about it: you are more likely to become friends with people who make a lot of friends and the chances are that you have an average number of friends. Naturally this means that on average, your friends have more friends than you.
“You are more likely to become friends with people who make a lot of friends.”
Moreover, a “Generalised Friendship Paradox” has been proposed, whereby the Friendship Paradox is applied to other attributes. In other words, individuals demonstrate lower levels of a specific trait, relative to their friends, whether this be popularity, attractiveness, or social activity.
Random friends of randomly selected individuals are not so “random” at all. In fact, these people have specific traits. We may select our friends using a semi-unconscious selection process. Do you really want to be friends with someone who lacks integrity and honesty? We pick our friends carefully, depending on our own personal values, and if we don’t like someone, they’re out. Regardless, the point is that random friends have a higher likelihood of possessing traits that are not typical of the general population, such as greater popularity and greater power, as proposed by Thomas Grund.
“If you think about it, random friends of randomly selected individuals are not so “random” at all”
You may be wondering why all this matters. Well, the implications of this non-randomness amongst random friends of random individuals are important. First of all, an understanding of the Friendship Paradox may help in the early identification of epidemics. If our friends are more popular than ourselves, they are also more likely to be central. What does central mean? Think about a social network – like Facebook, or your actual social network. The people in these networks are nodes, connected to each other to varying degrees. Centrality relates to the number of connections you have, direct and indirect. If you are more central, you have more connections, this also means that you are more likely to be infected sooner. This means that if we monitor the central individuals, we can catch and prevent outbreaks earlier. To demonstrate this point, researchers have shown that providing immunisation for a random group of friends of random individuals is more effective than immunising the random group of individuals themselves.
“The Friendship Paradox can be used in political elections – political candidates want to influence those who are the most influential.”
Aside from the prevention of epidemics, the Friendship Paradox may be used in looking at co-offenders in crime. Co-offenders are more likely to demonstrate non-random attributes which may prove important in examining criminal networks – both in the identification and the targeting of key players. Moreover, the Friendship Paradox can be used in political elections, political candidates want to influence those who are the most influential. Who are they, you ask? The chances are that your friends are more influential than you are. As Singer proposed, it is quite likely that you yourself are not influential, but you know someone that is. These central people are the key to winning elections, stopping epidemics from spreading, and much more.
So what does this all mean? That your insecurities are right? No. What you should take from this is that the Friendship Paradox is based on averages; this is not all-encompassing, but we should pay attention and keep this in mind. Moreover, look at what social science can contribute to society. This one phenomenon (the Friendship Paradox) can help prevent epidemics, target key players in a criminal network, and influence political elections. What more can social science do? Stay tuned and find out.