Our social world consists of a series of relationships of different quality (and hence value). In effect, these consist of a set of rings of friendship that increase in number, but decrease in average emotional closeness.
These rings have very specific values: 5, 15, 50, 150, 500…, where each ring (number) includes the ones onside it (so the 15 includes the 5, etc). These rings are created by the way we distribute our social time and effort — we devote 40% of all our social effort to the five people in the inner ring, another 20% to the 10 extra people that make up the 15 ring, and the remaining 135 people share the remaining 40% of our time/effort between them.
The rings correspond to very specific patterns of time investment, and if we fall below this with respect to one friend, that friend will slide down into the next layer. Roughly, we have to see each person in the 5-ring at least once a week (that’s the minimum), everyone in the 15-ring at least once a month, everyone in the 50-ring at least once every six months, and everyone in the 150 ring at least once a year.
You and your teams have made interesting discoveries regarding time constraints on social bonding. Is our fast-paced Technology Age all to blame, and what can we do to maintain our bonds despite the time crunch?
It seems that digital technology simply provides an alternative way to interact that we can use very effectively to keep up with friends that we would find it difficult to meet with in person.
But it doesn’t change the pattern of friendships (the rings or their sizes) at all. It seems that on Facebook or wherever, we still have to speak directly to a friend for it to count: simply posting a picture of our breakfast or a selfie that everyone reads doesn’t count — that’s just a form of voyeurism, that is good enough to make acquaintances but not friendships.
Can you explain how the behavioral, cognitive, and neuroendocrinological processes intertwine as people interact with others to create relationships?
In monkeys and apes, social grooming (a behavior) triggers the endorphin system in the brain and creates a psycho-pharmacological platform off which the animals are able build a cognitive relationship of trust, obligation and reciprocity.
The endorphin system responds to any stressful effects on the body, but for grooming (and hence stroking, petting , cuddling in humans) there is a specialized neural system (the afferent c-tactile nerves) that run from the hairy skin directly into the brain (and the endorphin-producing neurons) that responds ONLY to light slow stroking.
We have discovered other ways to trigger the endorphin system, including singing, dancing and storytelling.