The student newspaper of Strath Haven High School. The Panther Press is first and foremost a reflection of the opinions and interests of the student body. For this reason, we do not publish any anonymous or teacher-written submissions, and we do not discriminate against any ideology or political opinion. While we are bound by school policy (and funding), we will not render any article neutral, although individual points may be edited for obscene or inflammatory content. Finally, the articles published in the Panther Press do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or advisors.

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Why You Can’t Be Friends With Everyone

Ryan Sheehan, '17, Editor

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“To live alone, one must either be an animal, a god or still be listening to music by Taio Cruz.” – Aristotle.

On this, we should all agree. There is a reason that one of the worst punishments known to man is solitary confinement. We need one another. In fact, loneliness itself can even shave 5 years off of our life expectancy, which is a little bit sad. It’s no wonder then that each of us place such a high value on the networks we form. Similarly understandable is how we are so susceptible to the tantalizing prospect of social media: the opportunity to connect with everyone. Just consider that 1.86 billion people are now using Facebook and that the average number of friends among these users is a sizable 338 people. Move up a few deciles and you’ll see that fifteen percent of users are now boasting upwards of 500 friends. That’s a total of 279 million people. In other words, the population of the world’s most popular according to Facebook (those with 500+ friends) is now about twelve times the size of the entire population of Australia. And yes, that’s even after accounting for all of the marsupials.

Main point: at least as far as Facebook analytics are concerned, we have a lot of friends. But let’s take a step back for a second. Is it even humanly possible to have 500 friends? According to eminent and professional social psychologist Robin Dunbar, it is actually an entirely imaginary proposition.

On this idea, Dunbar came up with a theory which he named, quite plainly, Dunbar’s number. His theory suggests that there is a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. In total, it is estimated that humans can comfortably maintain only 150 stable relationships. For Dunbar, these are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. This limit is a direct function of mankind’s relative neocortex size. So speaking from a psychology perspective, maybe Facebook’s use of the word “friend” falls short. But I think everyone already knew that anyways. I wouldn’t exactly count my papoose soccer coach’s wife a “friend” and yet I see her pointed political posts all the same. Still, it has some interesting repercussions for the real world.

Take for example the case of Gore-Tex. By trial and error, the leadership in the company discovered that if more than 150 employees were working together in one building, different social problems could occur. The company started building company buildings with a limit of 150 employees and only 150 parking spaces. When the parking spaces were filled, the company would build another 150-employee building. In fact, even though these buildings were often placed only short distances from each other, this concept turned out to increase efficiency significantly

However, even beyond the realm of the corporate world, we might do well to take Dunbar’s number into consideration more often when attempting to work through such perennial societal issues as xenophobia and racism. Due to the apparent limitations on our mental faculties, it wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to assume that our general empathy must therefore be suffering. For if we are unable to understand how anyone beyond the scope of our allotted 150 persons is feeling, then how can we begin to care about them? Seeing as people tend to surround themselves with people who are similar, it would follow that we would then have a lower tolerance for those who are different.

Well, as it turns out, it does. An interesting study linking pain and empathy recently published in the aptly named “Journal of Pain” (also the name of Randy Savage’s future memoir, probably) looked at how our empathy can even change the way we feel about others on an inextricably physical level. For the study, volunteers were paired with either a complete stranger, or someone they had previously identified as a friend. The pairs were then tasked with holding their hands in ice water for a specified duration and then with ranking how much pain they had each felt. In the end, those who had been paired with a friend reported feeling more pain than those who had been paired with a stranger, suggesting that empathy quite literally makes us feel some of our friends pain.

Empathy is powerful. It’s what allows us to do nice things for others. To live beyond ourselves. To live beyond self-interest. But as it happens, by living beyond ourselves, we actually stand to increase the quality of our own life. Looking at a different study now by Michael Norton, a professor of business administration in the marketing unit at the Harvard Business School, we can see that by buying things for our friends, we are inadvertently buying happiness for ourselves. The study gave a pool of about 200 Vancouver college students $20 each and tasked half with spending their money on themselves and half with spending their money exclusively on others by the end of the day. When the participants reported how they had spent their money, a few patterns became clear. People who spent the money on themselves tended to use the money for mundane, daily things they probably would have bought anyways: a coffee maybe, makeup, headphones, etc. However, the second group tended to spend their money in ways that were markedly more memorable: a journal for a niece, a few dollars for a busker, a larger tip for a waiter. And because of the inherently thoughtful nature of these gestures, they brought, on average, more gratification and fulfilment to those who had made them.

So what can we take away from all of this? Is being aware of our disposition to strangers enough? Will we always be so limited when it comes to our social networks? Well, probably. But that’s alright. Because at the end of it all, we still get to decide who our 150 people are, and we still get to make sure they count. We still get to connect with these people on a level that is almost unimaginable, and we still get to be constantly extending ourselves. We have the opportunity to care about other people and be a part of their lives, a chance to be empathetic. So just remember readers, friends are perhaps the most invaluable resources we have, and the best way for you to take for yourself is actually by giving to others.

The student newspaper of Strath Haven High School. The Panther Press is first and foremost a reflection of the opinions and interests of the student body. For this reason, we do not publish any anonymous or teacher-written submissions, and we do not discriminate against any ideology or political opinion. While we are bound by school policy (and funding), we will not render any article neutral, although individual points may be edited for obscene or inflammatory content. Finally, the articles published in the Panther Press do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or advisors.
Why You Can’t Be Friends With Everyone