Have you ever noticed that the people you hang out with always seem to be more popular than you? Whether it’s down at the gym, on social media, or even at work, it is common for people to notice that their friends seem fitter, more popular, and more successful. According to researchers in the field of social networks, this is due to something known as the friendship paradox. But what is this paradox and why does it make it seem like we are less popular than our friends?
In this post, we’ll explore the reasons the friendship paradox exists, the different ways it manifests itself, and why you don’t need to worry about this strange phenomenon.
What is the friendship paradox?
According to the sociologist of social networks Scott Feld, the reason our friends are likely to be more popular than we are is simply down to maths and sampling. He found that, if you were to ask someone who their friends were and then met the friends of that person and asked them the same question, then, on average, you would find that the friends are better connected than that first person.
This is perhaps most apparent on social networks online where our behavior affects our self-image greatly, with one study finding 98% of Twitter followers following people were being followed by more people than them.
The friendship paradox also has wide-ranging effects beyond the internet and friendship circles and can potentially be used to explain why people you see in the gym are always much fitter than you, or noticing that your sexual partners are typically more experienced than you are. Indeed, a new study has found that this paradox may hold for additional characteristics, such as income, happiness, and sexual partners.
Effectively, the friendship paradox stems from a sampling bias built on the fact that people with more friends tend to be observed more by their friends. Equally, if you take the gym example, the reason everyone at the gym seems fitter than you is because they spend more time there.
When it comes to sexual partners, people who are actively dating are more likely to be sexually active with more people. When it comes to income, only certain friends can afford to do certain activities, bringing in higher earners to social networks and making the activities they do more noticeable. This broader phenomenon is sometimes called the “Generalized Friendship Paradox”.
Why does it exist?
As Scott Feld explained the concept, the reason the friendship paradox exists is because of maths and sampling. Whilst everyone’s friendship group might be different, everyone’s sample is always likely to be skewed. This will tend towards your friends being likely to be more popular than you are on average. This is due to the fact that within any friendship group, people with more friends are more likely to be in the sample.
The simple act of taking a sample of friends inevitably leads to something known as a biased sample in statistics. Namely, this is due to the fact that those without connections and with less friends are less likely to be included in the sample. People can also be double-counted across the network. This leads to a situation where the majority of people have fewer friends that only the most popular within their network.
Samples can also be majorly skewed with the existence of particularly popular friends. If you happen to be connected with Barack Obama, who has the most Twitter followers of anybody with over 112 million, then your network will have its average popularity increase compared to the general population.
By virtue of their appearance in multiple networks, connections feed into the friendship paradox that makes us all feel less popular than our own personal network.
Why you don’t need to worry about the friendship paradox
The concept of the friendship paradox can all seem quite depressing. The fact that science seems to back up the findings beyond basic friendships, can make things seem even worse. However, there is no need to despair because the phenomenon doesn’t necessarily drop off as you move up the social pyramid. It is down to the natural result of social connections through networks.
Take, for example, the aforementioned twitter study which found 98% of users followed accounts followed by more people than themselves. This study actually found that even the top 0.5 percent of Twitter users fell into the friendship paradox.
This is because they found that those who have more followers also tended towards following people with more influence and activity than they themselves mustered. That’s why too much social media could be secretly making you feel bad.
This all means that feeling down when comparing yourself to your friends is futile. Indeed, the more we compare ourselves to others, be it on social media or in our daily lives, the more likely we are to come up against this phenomenon.
It is a statistical reality that, on average, the people in our social networks will be getting more of whatever lens we look through. As such we either have to accept and embrace that fact or avoid seeking comparisons within a network that is likely to leave you feeling blue.
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