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The Psychology of Social Networking

How many true friends can one really have?

Although "social networking" is now synonimous with Facebook and Twitter, it has a much wider meaning that includes - believe it or not - that very outdated form of relating to others, using physical or real, as opposed to virtual or electronic, contact. But how are both related?

One intuitive hypothesis is that "popular" people (those with vast, far-reaching, and significant networks or contacts) will have connections both in the real as well as in the virtual world; thus the number of people one deals with in the real or physical world should be positively correlated with the number of virtual or electronic contacts one has.

On the other hand, a less intuitive (but still feasible) hypothesis may be that people who are less popular or charismatic in the real world may somehow "compensate" for their lack of charm by over-indulging in virtual social networking sites (and, unsurprisingly, spend more time in the virtual world than in the real world). Have you ever met someone with over 1,000 Facebook contacts? I have, and they seem quite different from someone who, despite not having a Facebook account or advertising their portfolio of friends, is socially very resourceful.

The truth of the matter is that, as with every human behaviour, social networking (virtual or not) is influenced by major individual differences, which means that people differ quite systematically in the quantity and quality of their relationships. Three of the main personality traits that are responsible for this variability are the traits of Extraversion, which refers to the tendency to be socially dominant, exert leadership and influence on others, be active and positive; Emotional Intelligence, which refers to the ability to identify and manage emotional states in yourself and other people; and, finally, the somewhat less explored and more controversial trait of Machiavellianism.

In this study we are trying to assess to what extent these three traits affect physical and virtual social networking, and how (if) they overlap. This is important because, whereas Extraversion and Emotional Intelligence have been found to correlate positively, Machiavellianism and Emotional Intelligence are meant to be negatively correlated - and yet both should positively predict social networking.

The answer to this apparent contradiction may be that Mach and Emotional Intelligence predict different types of social networks, namely "weak" and "strong" ties, respectively. Thus Mach are busy collecting meaningless friends, or, in other words, people who may be useful from a career or self-interest perspective, whilst emotionally intelligent people would be more focused on nurturing "genuine" or meaningful, that is, strong, ties.

If this sounds a bit idealistic and naive to you, take the test and see what you think. In our survey we are also trying to assess whether high Machs, extraverts and emotionally intelligent people differ in their level of life satisfaction as a function of their social network. Thus genuine friends or strong ties may be a stronger determinant of life satisfaction for people who are high in EI and Extraversion (than for those high in Mach).

Clearly, popularity is an important driver of friendships because it affects the number of people who you meet as well as the degree to which people pay attention to you and want to be your friends. However, personality traits (the "good" and the "bad") may subsequently affect the extent to which YOU are interested in other people, and why that is the case. Perhaps that explains the fundamental difference between an extrinsic and an intrinsic friendship, with the former being driven by self-interest and the latter being driven by warmth and love, or, in the words of Aristotle:

"A true friend is someone who thinks that you are a good ... What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies"

How many Facebook contacts would the wise Greek philosopher have had?