Friends: Understanding the Power of our Most Important Relationships

From this 2021 book by Robin Dunbar:

* we tend to underestimate the significance of psychological wellbeing as the bedrock on which our success in life is founded. If our sense of wellbeing is significantly diminished for any length of time, we are likely to slide into depression, and that leads to a downward spiral into ill health. If our mood is positive and everything is upbeat, we are not only more willing to engage with others socially but we approach everything we do with optimism and enthusiasm. We’ll work harder to get even the most boring tasks done. It isn’t hard to see how happiness, a sense of positivity and a ‘can do’ attitude can spread rapidly through a population…

* So important is it to be part of a social group, that when we find ourselves alone or an outsider we typically feel lonely, even agitated, and will actively work to try and remedy the situation. Few of us could cope with living completely isolated on a desert island with no prospect of rescue. Even the rather disagreeable Scottish seaman Alexander Selkirk (the original on whom the Robinson Crusoe story was based) was overjoyed to be rescued after spending four years alone on what is now officially known as Robinson Crusoe Island. Loneliness takes its toll on us, and we do our best to look for opportunities to meet people. Being part of a group makes us feel properly human. We feel more relaxed when we know we belong. We feel more satisfied with life when we know we are wanted.

* loneliness is actually an evolutionary alarm signal that something is wrong – a prompt that you need to do something about your life, and fast. Even just the perception of being socially isolated can be enough to disrupt your physiology, with adverse consequences for your immune system as well as your psychological wellbeing that, if unchecked, lead to a downward spiral and early death.

* neural connectivity and neural plasticity in rats if they are isolated when young. In particular, it can irretrievably alter the function of the prefrontal cortex (the front part of the brain where all the clever stuff, and especially the clever social stuff, is done), as well as its myelinisation (the laying down of the fatty sheaths around neurons that enable them to transmit signals faster and more efficiently). Once the damage is done, it’s done. In humans, short periods of loneliness rarely have any long-term adverse effects, but persistent loneliness is correlated with increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, depression and dementia, as well as poor sleeping habits (which in turn often have adverse psychological consequences).

* The important thing about friends is that you need to have them before disaster befalls you. One reason is that, as we shall see later, people are only likely to make the effort to help you if they are already your friend. We are all much less likely to help strangers or people we know only slightly – despite what we sometimes claim. Making friends, however, requires a great deal of effort and time. It is not something you can just magic up over a cup of coffee – not least because everyone else is already embedded in friendship networks of their own, and to make time and room for you as a new friend means that they will have to sacrifice a friendship with someone else.

* younger adults behave like careful shoppers: they are trying to sample as widely as they can among the pool of potential friends available to them in order to find the best set of life partners and friends. As a result, they distribute their time more widely – after all, they have much more time available in which to do so than older adults – and they ought to be happy to sacrifice relationship quality for quantity if it means they can sample a larger proportion of the available population. Into their thirties, people become more selective as they identify the best choices. In part, this is probably forced on them by the demands of parenthood. As every new parent knows, free time is decimated by the early years of childcare, and this in turn impacts on the time (and energy!) available for socialising. We shed our more casual friendships and concentrate what time and mental effort we have on the handful of really important friends.

* The final phase in the human life cycle seems to kick in around the sixties, when we start to lose friends through death. If we lose friends when we are younger, perhaps because they moved away, we simply make a renewed social effort and replace them with new friends. In older age, however, we lack the energy and the motivation (and are less mobile as well) to seek and build new friendships. Moreover, the kinds of places where we found friends when we were younger are now no longer quite so appropriate as places to go. We don’t quite know the right codes of behaviour for the context, are not even sure how to start a conversation with a stranger any more. So we become less inclined to go out in order to replace old friends. As a result, we gradually shed friends – and family – until in very old age we are confined to our house and seldom see anyone from one day’s end to the next. The fact is that we start life with one or two close carers and, if we live long enough, we end life that way too.

* It is as though we all have the same amount of emotional capital (think of this as the time you have for spending with people), but introverts choose to spread this thickly among just a few people whereas extraverts choose to spread it thinly among many people. As a result, extraverts have friendships that, on average, are much weaker than those of introverts. Given that someone’s willingness to support you is directly related to the time you spend socialising with them (and hence their perceived emotional closeness to you), one consequence of this may be that extraverts are less likely to be supported by their friends. It’s as though introverts feel less secure about the social world, so they prefer to invest more heavily in a few people whom they know really well and whom they can really rely on.

* people who had few kin listed in their network had more non-kin friends, and vice versa. I remember someone telling me after a lecture I had given at a science festival that she and her husband were the archetypal examples of just this. She came from a very big family, and all her time was taken up with her many cousins, aunts and uncles, so she actually had very few real friends; in contrast, her husband, who came from a very small family, had a large number of friends…

This seems to be a consequence of the fact that our networks are limited to around 150 slots, and we first slot all our family members in and then, if we have any spare slots left, we set about filling them with unrelated friends. It seems likely that friends in this sense are a relatively recent phenomenon, and are a consequence of the dramatic reduction in family size that has occurred over the last two centuries, especially in Europe and North America.

* none of the six main kinship-naming systems in the world have terms for anyone who is less closely related than cousins. It is as though this is the natural limit for human communities, and everyone beyond that magic circle of cousins is a stranger of no particular importance. In most traditional ethnographic societies, anyone joining the community has to be assigned some kind of fictive (or fictional) kinship, usually by being adopted as a son, or perhaps a brother, by someone; until that happens, they have no place in the community. All their adopter’s kin then become their kin, with the same rights and obligations as real kin. We do much the same with adopted children, and of course we do it with very close friends when we teach our children to address them as ‘Aunty Mary’ or ‘Uncle Jim’ even though they are not biological aunts and uncles. Kinship is so central to small-scale societies that it might legitimately be regarded as one of the main organising principles of the human social world.

* One reflection of this is that, all things being equal, we are much more willing to help relatives than we are friends. This is sometimes known as the kinship premium . Think about what happens if someone contacts you out of the blue and explains that they are your long-lost third cousin, and that you share a great-great-grandmother. You might just ask a few questions to check that this really is so, but once you accept the evidence, you’ll offer them a bed for the night – and would they like to stay longer? But if the person says that they are a friend of a friend of a friend, your response is likely to be very different: after the usual pleasantries, you might suggest they try the Day’s Inn down the road to see if there’s a room available – and perhaps they might like to pop round some time for a cup of tea . . .
The kinship premium seems to derive from one of the most fundamental principles in evolutionary biology, the theory of kin selection – that we are more likely to behave altruistically, and less likely to behave selfishly, towards close relatives than distant relatives, and towards distant relatives than to unrelated folk.

* Another respect in which family and friend relationships differ is that friendships are more costly to maintain than family relationships. Our women’s network data illustrate the general principle: people typically devoted more time to their close family than to their close friends, but they devoted much more time to their less close friends than to their less close family. Distant family relationships need only the occasional reminder to be kept ticking over, but friendships die fast if they are not maintained at the appropriate level of contact for any length of time. The consequences of this were evident in our longitudinal study of high-schoolers going away to university. We found that friends very quickly (within months) slipped down through the list of friends once they weren’t being seen so regularly. It takes only a couple of years for a friend to become just an acquaintance – someone I once knew. Family members, in contrast, required much less work to maintain, and emotional closeness to them hardly budged an inch over the eighteen months of the study. If anything, it actually increased a little – absence really does make the heart grow fonder (but only for family). We can go many years without seeing them, and they still welcome us with open arms, will still come to our aid like the cavalry coming over the hill when we really need it.
One category of people who sit uncomfortably between family and friends are in-laws (otherwise known technically in anthropology as affines, or relatives by marriage).

* in bonded social groups, your friends keep an eye on you and make sure they stay with you even if you decide to wander off. We found that primates and pair-bonded antelope are constantly checking on the whereabouts of their closest friends, whereas herd-forming species (such as the wild goats I studied) hardly ever do.

* loneliness was associated with difficulty in processing social cues, as might be expected, as well as confirming that other psychological factors such as a small social network size, high anxiety and low empathy independently contribute to loneliness.

* The orbitofrontal neocortex is involved in interpreting emotional cues, and it seems that it can act to suppress the amygdala’s panicky responses when it thinks these are misplaced. Since all relationships, and especially those with strangers, are potentially risky (we don’t know quite how they are going to behave), the initial instinct will always be to run away. The orbitofrontal cortex is able to dampen down this tendency when there isn’t any need to run away – something that may be especially important during courtship and mating, for example. This is an important reminder that the different brain regions interact to create a fine-tuned balance that allows us to function effectively in complex situations.

* MaryAnne Noonan, one of my colleagues at Oxford University. She looked at the brain’s white matter and showed that its volume was also correlated with the size of the friendship circle.

* One of the things we had noticed in our various studies of social networks was that women always had slightly more friends than men.

* He found that women who lived in households with more people had a larger amygdala than women who lived with fewer individuals, whereas there was no effect of household size on amygdala size for males. In contrast, men in larger households had larger orbitofrontal cortices, whereas women exhibited no consistent pattern. The reverse was the case for those who had more opportunity to engage with emotionally close relationships. Women who expressed greater satisfaction with their relationships and who said they had more opportunities to confide in others had larger volumes in these two areas than women who did not.

* There is a poignant moment in a BBC television documentary on autism where an eleven-year-old boy with Asperger syndrome turns to his mother and asks: ‘What is a friend, mummy? Can I have one?’ and then, after a pause playing with his toys: ‘How do I get a friend?’ He understood that the children he mixed with called each other friends. But there seemed to be some mysterious process involved that he did not quite fully understand. Just how do you set about getting a friend? He has already tried asking other children to be his friend, but it didn’t seem to work, and he doesn’t really know why. And now he is genuinely stumped.
His perplexity is a reminder that we all have moments of puzzlement when our overtures of friendship are rejected, or a friend lets us down and we don’t understand why. These moments of social anguish are a reminder of an important aspect of friendship: friends are not, in reality, all that easy to acquire and maintain. We have to work at them, and it can take months, sometimes even years, for a real friendship to blossom. More importantly, we all vary in our ability to manage the social world. At one end is the young boy who is completely defeated by the very concept of friendship; at the other is the perfect host who seems to know by effortless intuition what to say to enliven a social occasion, how to bring the best out in everyone, who would hit it off with whom. Most of us lie somewhere in between these two extremes, lurching from one social minefield to another relationship catastrophe, while just about managing to keep ourselves afloat. And then there are the times when circumstances leave us stranded on a social desert island, watching enviously as everyone else seems to be having the social time of their lives.
The human social world is possibly the most complex phenomenon in the observed universe – far more complex than the mysterious processes that create stars and engineer the orbits of the planets. The social skills that make this world possible are astonishingly sophisticated, and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin these skills are a miracle of evolutionary engineering. Yet we take them for granted and hardly ever give them a second thought.

* If you want to know what someone really thinks of you, check out how they touch you. There is an honesty about touch that cannot be matched by any other sense, and certainly a great deal more honesty than can be inferred from the words they may speak to you. A touch is worth a thousand words. That’s because touch is intensely intimate in a way that no other sense is. Words are slippery things. Not only are we good at saying one thing when we really mean another, but even the words we use change their meaning according to how we say them. We are extraordinarily skilled at lying when it suits us, sometimes with the best of intentions (as when we don’t want to offend someone with a brutally honest opinion) and sometimes deliberately for personal gain. In contrast, the way someone puts their hand on your shoulder or strokes your arm says a great deal more about how they view their relationship with you than anything else ever could. In part, that is because there is an intimacy to touch that the other senses lack. Taste and smell, the other two intimate senses, can tell me who you are, but they cannot tell me how you feel about me .
Touch is what makes the world of relationships go round. The very intimacy of touch means that we are very sensitive to who touches us, and how they do it. Being stroked or rocked is calming, creating a sense of both pleasure and relaxation. The cares of the world drop slowly from your shoulders. It’s the business of the masseur in the everyday world. It is why we rock babies, and why rocking calms them. But at the same time, there is an ambivalence about touch, perhaps precisely because it is so intimate. We want to be touched by some people, but shrink from being touched by others. This ambivalence is the bane of our lives, not least because it sometimes makes it difficult for those with whom we interact to know which category they belong to. I am willing to stroke you affectionately, but you are not willing to allow me to do it. So we have to develop rules that help smooth that particular pathway. A handshake is fine between strangers, a stroke on the back or a kiss is not. Learning these rules takes most of our childhood and adolescence, and even then we make mistakes. A yearning to be touched goes unfulfilled; or we blunder in where we are not welcome.

* how emotionally close we feel to someone is directly related to how much time we invest in them.

* we are more likely to laugh at something when we are in a group than when we are alone.

* The more energetic the dance moves and the more synchronised the members of the group were, the greater the change in pain threshold and the more bonded they felt to the group.

* What these two studies revealed is that the number of close friends you have is closely correlated with how engaged you are with your local community, the level of trust you have in those among whom you live, your sense of how worthwhile your life is and how happy you feel. Most of the relationships between these variables work both ways: increase the sense of community engagement and it increases your sense that life is worthwhile; but, equally, increase your sense that life is worthwhile, and it increases how engaged you become with the rest of the community. These are, however, influenced in slightly different ways by whether we eat or drink with other people. Social eating tends to influence the number of close friends we have and our sense of life satisfaction most directly, and then through these the other components, whereas drinking socially influences our sense of engagement with the community and our trust in its members most directly, and then through these the other components. The net outcome, however, is much the same in either case: engaging in these activities with others strengthens our membership of the wider community and elevates our general sense of wellbeing and satisfaction with life – and, through these, our health…

* If there is one behaviour without which both a conversation and a relationship would be deathly dull it is surely a smile. Everyone smiles in the same language, as the saying goes. Smiles express interest, grant permission to continue a conversation, provide encouragement that the interaction is welcome, express apology and sympathy, and a dozen other emotions. Most people assume that smiles and laughter are one and the same thing, that a smile is a laugh that never quite got out. In fact, there is an important difference between laughing and smiling. While laughter, as we have seen, derives from the monkey play face, smiling derives from the monkey submission face. In monkeys, the ‘bared teeth face’ (or snarl) is associated with submission or appeasement. In contrast to the ROM face of a laugh, a smile, like a snarl, has the teeth firmly clamped together and the lips drawn apart to show the teeth. Even though both are about friendship, one is about bonding, the other about subordination. That’s why we smile so much when we are nervous or embarrassed, or when we are introduced to people whom we don’t know or perceive as being superior.

* The limit of four for a conversation is a remarkably robust effect. If a fifth person joins, it will split into two separate conversations within as little as half a minute.

* the evening seems to enhance our social interactions in a very special way, and that the origins of this are probably very ancient.

* You are twice as likely to share genes with a friend as you are with any random person from your local neighbourhood. …friends were more likely to share the same DRD2 dopamine receptor gene (one of the two neurochemicals that allow you to maintain your friendships), and less likely to share the same CYP2A6 gene (a gene that regulates the enzyme responsible for the oxidation of nicotine – an enzyme that, useful as it might be in other contexts, is of no real use for maintaining friendships).

* The seven pillars of friendship:
• having the same language (or dialect)
• growing up in the same location
• having had the same educational and career experiences (notoriously, medical people gravitate together, and lawyers do the same)
• having the same hobbies and interests
• having the same world view (an amalgam of moral views, religious views, and political views)
• having the same sense of humour
• having the same musical tastes

* The more of these boxes you tick with someone, the more time you will be prepared to invest in them, the more emotionally close you will feel towards them, the closer they will lie to you in the layers of your social network, and the more willing you will be to help them out when they need it. And the more likely they are to help you. Birds of a feather really do flock together. You tend to gravitate towards people with whom you have more things in common. You tend to like the people who are most like you. In fact, each layer of your social network is equivalent to a particular number of ‘pillars’ shared – six or seven for the innermost 5-layer, just one or two for the outer 150-layer. It doesn’t seem to matter which ones you actually share in common. These pillars are, as economists put it, substitutable – that is, any one is as good as another, there is no hierarchy of preference. A three-pillar friend is a three-pillar friend irrespective of which three pillars you have in common.

* When you first meet someone new you invest a lot of time in them (in effect, catapult them into one of the innermost circles) so that you can evaluate where they lie on the Seven Pillars. That takes time, but once you know where they stand, you then reduce the time you devote to them to a level appropriate to the number of pillars you have in common. As a result, they quietly slide back down through the layers to settle out in the layer appropriate to that number. In other words, friendships are born and not made. You just have to find them. It may take several goes before you find the right person to be your best friend, or even in your top five friends list, but if you keep searching you will find them eventually.

* Knowing how to recognise a member of your community cuts through the long-winded process of getting to know someone by having to spend half a lifetime with them. I know you are a member of my community because I instantly recognise your dialect the moment you speak. You know the same streets and pubs that I know. You know the same jokes that we used to tell over a pint of beer. You belong to the same religion as I do. Any one of these is a rough and ready guide to a shared history, and any one of them will do to mark you out as someone I can trust – because I know how you think. They point to the fact that we grew up in the same place, we absorbed the same mores, the same attitudes to life and the wider world. I don’t have to explain my joke to you because you get it straight away. In fact, I don’t even have to finish the punch line because you know the same jokes as me, or even just the way a joke is constructed. This harking back to the community we grew up in seems to explain the extraordinary attachment many people feel to ‘home’ – the place where they grew up – even decades after they moved away.

* In fact, we can tell a massive amount about a person from just the first sentence they say. We can identify where they come from, and, at least in Britain, which social class they belong to. Social linguists reckoned that, in the 1970s, you could place a native English-speaker to within 35 km (20 miles) of their birthplace just by their accent and the words they used, so fine-scale were these differences in dialect.

* In societies that are essentially social contracts (as all human societies are), freeloaders who take the benefits of the contract but avoid paying all the costs erode trust in other members of the community and quickly lead to the collapse of society. When that happens, it causes communities to fragment, and we retreat into the little clusters of people we really trust. The question that motivated this model was whether dialect might provide a quick-and-dirty guide to membership of your community, and hence of whether you could trust someone.
We can think of a dialect as a supermarket barcode exhibited on your forehead. Each individual checks out the barcodes of the people they meet, but only agrees to form relationships if their respective barcodes match. Over time, freeloaders can learn to mimic the local dialect, pretending to be good citizens but all the time exploiting those with whom they interact. Left to their own devices, freeloaders will very quickly overwhelm the population, driving the collaborators to extinction in as few as a dozen generations. The interesting finding was that if the population changed its dialect regularly from one generation to the next, it held freeloaders in check because they couldn’t track the changes fast enough.

* Meeting people we don’t know – strangers – is a fact of life. That is how we make new friends. But we don’t really want to waste time checking out how they sit on each of the Seven Pillars of Friendship. If we did that for every new person we met, there wouldn’t be enough time in the day. Ideally, we want some simple rubric for deciding whether it is worth investing further time and effort in getting to know them better. So what’s the best criterion to use when deciding whether someone might be worth investing time in so as to check them out in more detail? Jacques Launay explored this by examining how strangers are judged on the Seven Pillars. The traits that people selected significantly more often than expected were ethnicity, religion, political views, moral views and, strongest of all, musical tastes.

* Kinship probably remains the single best cue for trustworthiness because it is reinforced by the family community, especially in traditional small-scale societies.

* Karl Grammer, perhaps the leading human ethologist, has made a career out of studying human mate-choice behaviour. He suggested that courtship can best be understood as a process of punctuated evaluation: there are a series of decision points, separated by periods of stasis, where we pause to decide whether to move on to the next more intimate level or to pull out now before we have overcommitted ourselves. We begin with distance signals, and slowly but surely circle into ever closer and more intimate forms of evaluation. It begins with what does he/she look like? How well do they move . . . dance . . . play? If they pass this initial test, we arrange to spend more time with them, successively evaluating cues based on speech, smell and taste until, eventually, we commit ourselves to the full monty. At each stage, we pause to evaluate whether we should proceed to the next level.

* Risk-taking and sportiness are other cues to which women seem to pay more than just casual attention. Young males, in particular, are risk-takers: adolescent boys take so many risks (driving too fast, taking drugs, playing dangerous sports) that they have much higher mortality rates in their late teens than girls do. What risk-taking seems to be signalling is gene quality. In effect, they are saying: watch me – I can afford to take risks because my genes are so good I’ll get away with it.

* She found that women much preferred brave, risk-prone males compared with altruistic, risk-averse ones as short-term mating partners. However, they preferred altruistic males as long-term partners… get your genes from males who have proven quality and then rely on a safe pair of hands to see you through the long haul of childcare. The tricky bit, of course, is persuading the second kind of male to take the risk of being cuckolded.

* homophily underpins successful romantic relationships as much as it does successful friendships.

* men dropped their standards of mate choice as the sex ratio became increasingly male-biased (more men than women, so creating more competition for women) and raised their standards (at least for long-term mates) when the sex ratio became more female-biased (i.e. when men were in short supply). More important, it seemed that men switched to more casual sex when they were in the minority – when women were forced to compete for men and, as a result, could exert less power over them. When there were fewer women available and men were forced to compete for women, men became more willing to accept committed relationships.
Although wealth and status tend to place men at an advantage compared with their competitors in the mating market, the decision on whom to choose actually lies with the women. Some surprising evidence of this came from our national mobile phone database. Vasyl Palchykov, a young Ukrainian graduate student in Kimmo Kaski’s statistical physics group at Aalto University, looked at how the two sexes allocate their phone calls to the two people they called most often. He was interested in how likely the best ‘friend’ (the person they phoned most often) was to be male or female at any given age – in effect an index of the relative preference for one sex over the other. The data showed that, in early adolescence, a woman’s best friend (the person she calls most often) is likely to be another female; but after about age eighteen, it switches to become increasingly male, reaching a peak in the early twenties that remains relatively stable until age forty, after which it falls rapidly to become female again at around age fifty-five, remaining consistently female-biased into old age. Males follow a reciprocal, but slightly different pattern: after a male-biased preference during adolescence, a male’s main call partner becomes increasingly female-biased up to the age of thirty, after which it peaks briefly and then declines steadily towards a low level of female bias roughly similar to that exhibited by females.
Two things stood out in these data. One was the fact that the female curve hits its peak about seven years earlier than the male’s does (at age twenty-three versus age thirty). The other was that it remains at this peak for much longer (until age forty-five versus age thirty-five in males). In other words, women maintain a focus on their partner/spouse for about three times longer than men do – for about twenty-one years compared to at most seven years for men. This tells us two things about romantic relationships. One is that women typically make a very early decision on which male to go for and they stick with it, constantly contacting him until even the dullest male finally realises and caves in. It looks like it takes the male around five years to wake up – or, at least, respond reciprocally – to this. This suggests that female choice is the norm in humans, as it is in many other mammals. Whatever men may do by way of display to attract the attention and interest of women, it is the women that ultimately decide whom to go with. Once a relationship has been established, it seems that the men lose interest long before the women do: their focus on the female partner lasts only a few years and then declines steadily down to a token level by middle age.

* the more someone idealised their partner (i.e. switched off their reality check) at the outset of the relationship, the longer they continued to be satisfied with the relationship. And the more this was reciprocated, the more likely the relationship was to last. The moment reality strikes, and you begin to see your partner for what he or she really is, there is a slow but steady erosion in relationship satisfaction that can only ever have one outcome.

* men are more prone to using violence in aggression, are more object-oriented and consistently more sexually oriented than women, women invariably perform better on tests of language competence, are more prosocial and empathic, and are more focused on making careful mate choices. Women are also better at inhibitory and effortful control, especially early in life.

* Friendships die when we do not see the people concerned often enough to maintain the relationship at its former level of emotional intimacy – and especially so when neither side can quite muster the energy to do anything about it. So the tendency is for such relationships to fade quietly, almost by accident rather than design. The road to friendship is paved with good intentions to meet up again, and no doubt a good bit of guilt – we must get together sometime . . . but somehow sometime never comes because too many other priorities intervene. In contrast, family relationships can weather the social equivalent of being becalmed in mid-Atlantic, in part because of the pull of family (the Kinship Premium) and in part because the closely integrated network of family relationships means that people don’t lose track of you completely. The kin-keepers bridge the divide by keeping everyone up to date with everyone else’s doings. You can never quite escape – unless you completely cut yourself off.
Family are more forgiving than friends – not just of those repeated failures to contact them, but also of the trickle of small breaches of trust that inevitably occur along the way.

* They identified six key rules which were essential for maintaining a stable relationship. These were: standing up for the friend in their absence, sharing important news with the friend, providing emotional support when it is needed, trusting and confiding in each other, volunteering help when it is required, and making an effort to make the other person happy. Breaking any of these rules, they suggested, was likely to weaken the relationship, and breaking many was likely to lead to complete relationship breakdown.
They noticed that, when recalling lapsed relationships, people were more likely to attribute negative behaviours to the other person and positive ones to themselves, a classic form of psychological deflection of blame known as the Attribution Error (‘It can’t be me that is wrong, so it must be you’). They also noticed that younger people (i.e. those under twenty years of age) attached more significance to public criticism than older people did, and that women placed most importance on failure to apportion time equally and give positive regard and emotional support, whereas men placed a greater emphasis on negative events like being the target of jokes or public displays of teasing. Men seem to be less able to cope with this kind of taunting than women, perhaps because reputations mean more to them.

* Because women are socially more proactive than men, men often end up with a social network dominated by their wives’ friends simply because the wives arrange the social events and the husbands just go along with it. Wives often try to encourage their husbands to contact old male friends, only to be greeted by a frustrating shrug of the shoulders. Irrespective of the cause, men risk ending up with no social network other than their own family after a divorce or the death of a spouse.

* There was a strong tendency for women’s break-ups to remain unreconciled longer than men’s… It seems that women are less forgiving than men.

* women’s relationships are more fragile than men’s, perhaps because they are much more intimate and emotionally charged

* Sociologists have been aware for some considerable time that social networks decline progressively as we enter old age. At the same time, they have been conscious of the fact that each of us has a core of relationships that remain surprisingly stable across much of the lifespan. These are those very close family and friends that provide us with emotional and social support and who, as it were, accompany us through life rather like a group of devoted servants – always at hand when we need them, always anxious to tend to our needs. There have been two rather different theories about this group of key friends: the socio-emotional theory of friendship (which suggests that we become more and more selective as we grow older to focus on those few emotionally valuable friendships) and the convoy theory (that we are accompanied through life by a relatively stable group of supportive friends).

* Old age brings on a downward spiral in which all the odds are stacked against you. You find it hard to make new friends as your old ones die or move away because you have less in common with the younger folk who now make up the bulk of the population; your declining energy makes you less willing to get out as often, and less able to take part in physical activities; your failing cognition makes it harder to respond so wittily or so engagingly as you once did in conversation, making you less interesting as a social companion; you are not so familiar with the topics that interest people now because you have not kept up with social and political developments – or the jokes of the latest stand-ups. Having an impoverished social life has adverse consequences for your cognitive wellbeing as well as your physical health, increasing the risk of dementia as well as physical illnesses that require hospitalisation. The prospect is not inviting. These are not conditions that physical medicine can cure, but nor are they psychiatric issues. They fall into an in-between limbo where conventional medicine offers few solutions. It makes the provision of social clubs and activities for the elderly all the more important as a way of maintaining their mental and physical health.
It is physical mobility that, as much as anything, causes our withdrawal from social interaction in older age. We just find it harder to get to places where people gather socially. In the limit, of course, we eventually become housebound. In that respect, the arrival of the internet has offered the possibility of a solution unique to our times. So, in the final chapter of this story of friendship, let’s turn to see what opportunities the digital world and social media have to offer, both for the current older generation and for the future prospects of the younger generations that have grown up with the internet.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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