Psychology of Social Connection

The circles we form

October 17th, 2020 · 3 Comments

Friends—you have probably heard of this. It is one of the best American television sitcoms that has millions of fans. As the name of the show represents, the characters always end up getting along with each other and stay as each other’s best friend no matter what happens.

Then, the question is, how do these characters maintain their friendship even after having the biggest conflict? The answer might be due to the need to belong, which induces us to seek friendship. We try to maintain friendship out of the desire to form interpersonal relationships and have someone who could emotionally support us.

Let’s dig deeper into this concept of friendship and how it is formed.


Who are the lucky 5 out of 1500? [Suyeon]

Close your eyes and try to list all the people in your life who you care about. Your families or best friend might pop up first, then your roommates, classmates, p-set buddies, or even people who you (used to—back in old days when the pandemic only existed in fantasy) run into in a dining hall. Then the question is, how many people would come visit you when you are distressed?

According to Dunbar (2014), multiple layers exist within an individual’s social circle. Humans could put 1,500 people—who we normally consider as acquaintances—in our outermost layer. I would put a person who sits far from me in the lecture hall in the science center but whose face is familiar in my outermost layer. There is another layer that has a capacity of 150 people who we had about a total of 9 minutes of pretty meaningless interaction. My friend’s friend who I met during the party and added me on Facebook without any further interaction may belong to this layer. The last layer involves only 5 people; these people would be the ones who would be next to you when you need them and are always on your side no matter what.

Numbers are just numbers, but the main point of Dunbar (2014) is that there are constraints in terms of the number of people you could include in your social network. This does not matter whether you are an extrovert or introvert; we are humans with the limited brain size, which also limits the number of friends and acquaintances according to the social brain hypothesis. The hypothesis explains the positive correlation between the size of neocortex and the capacity of personal social network, which is why we have a bigger social circle than other species.

So far, I talked about how there are only few people we could put in our close social circle. Then, how do we decide whom to put in our close circle? Dunbar (2014) explains the amount of endorphin activation is a crucial ingredient for feeling closeness. Touching (including hugs, high fives, holding hands etc.), laughing, and music trigger your endorphin to be activated. As the amount of time of endorphin activation gets longer, the closer we feel towards the other individual who interacted with you when your endorphin was activated. In other words, there is a higher chance that you would feel close to the person who you spend more time touching, laughing, or listening to music together.

I have a best friend who I can disclose anything about myself and is always next to me when I am distressed. However, I cannot pinpoint a single date when I decided to label her as my best friend. It happened naturally; the more we spent time together laughing and dancing crazy to our favorite music, we found ourselves to be each other’s best friend although she was once one of 1,500 people in my outermost layer.

Strong vs weak: What’s the deal with our social circle [Hannah]

As we all know human beings have this need to belong and to fill this need, we form social connections with others. Studies have shown that having that inner circle of strong connections is extremely important for our well-being and our need to belong (Baumeister and Leary, 1995). This makes sense – we need best friends to gossip, cry and laugh with. We need someone to lean on when things get tough, and we need people to have our backs. But there are other circles in our social lives that I think most of us gloss over. These are the 2 outer layers in our social circles. These connections are considered weak ties or acquaintances. Sandstrom and Dunn (2014) specifically looked at the power and benefits of these weaker ties. This paper really brings to light how much we overlook our interactions with acquaintances. An interesting result of their study showed that if an individual has a lot of weak tie connections in a day the number of strong tie connections does not really matter. We still see a positive effect on our health and well-being as well as feelings of belonging.
We need that outer circle of acquaintances. These weaker ties can form a large part of our social lives as they create mini networks of work friends, gym friends, coffee shop regulars etc. Each network offers a different support system and benefits. These networks encourage empathy, broaden our views, and connections that could stream across a much larger scale (We’ve all seen the effects of social networking at events – some may lead to internships and jobs)(Volpe, 2019). These weak ties make you feel connected and valued. I remember back when we were in a hard lockdown – we had restricted hours to go outside and exercise. During these hours there were always people out, running, walking, and cycling and on weekends one of the local coffee shops was open for takeaways. The sense of community was amazing, and you often got to see many of the familiar faces and would stop for a brief chat. I can’t count how many times my family and I bumped into people who we haven’t seen in years and we got to catch up.
I think this is a pretty cool thing to know especially now during these craazzyy times. Social distancing and isolated seem to be common words all over the media and in conversations. A lot of people have felt extremely isolated – being stuck in one place with the same people for months. But just a simple change like seeing a different person can give you a new perspective on life and a burst of energy. So next time you leave the house (obvs – still be careful and psychically distance and all that) but stop for a few minutes and “smell the roses.” Try a little harder to say hello to the familiar face in the coffee shop or have a conversation with the uber driver. I think people are craving that social connection so they would appreciate and benefit from a short interaction with a friendly face just as much as you would.
Forming and exploiting these weak ties might be a bit daunting – we will face the risk of being rejected. What if they don’t reply? Or don’t understand me because of the mask covering my face? What if we have nothing in common? How do you just start a conversation with a random person? Well first off, take a breath and keep it simple. A nice compliment about someone’s shoes or mask might be a nice start. You could also try talking to a familiar face first – these are the people you’ve seen a few times and maybe even giving the occasional head nod or wave. Another thing is to make the conversations meaningful – be mindful of the person, pay attention to what they say, don’t judge them, take an interest in what they say and try and find common ground (Volpe, 2019).
This week’s practicum highlighted for me how difficult it is to maintain some of my strong connections because we aren’t able to see our friends as frequently or have as many shared interests or experiences. Some of us don’t even have the same weather conditions in common – we can’t get together and rage about how hot it is or how miserable it is outside. But it did highlight how we should take advantage of our weaker ties in our social circles. That way we can still reap the benefits of these ties on our health and other aspects while fulfilling our need to belong. And like Suyeon said, our current best friends were once our acquaintances so let’s getting chatting 😀


A very important aspect in our lives is our social connections. The way we form our social circles allow for 3 different layers; best friends, friends, and acquaintances. These all have their own benefits on our health, need to belong and many other aspects of our lives. During COVID people have felt very disconnected from each other and the world. While we have facetime, texting and social media we are able to keep up some of our relationships. But it is still very difficult and just isn’t the same. Acquaintances, the outer level of our social circles, can have a huge effect on us right now and could be the solution for the days we aren’t able to connect with our close friends.
So … We challenge you to talk to the familiar face in the crowd – make a new acquaintance, reflect on how it makes you feel and maybe it can turn into a close friendship. And… if you happen to face rejection (because some people are not always so cool :/) just remember you always have a friend is us


Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529.….
Dunbar, R. I. M. (2014). The Social Brain: Psychological Underpinnings and Implications for the Structure of Organizations. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(2), 109–114.
Sandstrom, G. M., & Dunn, E. W. (2014). Social Interactions and Well-Being: The Surprising Power of Weak Ties. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(7), 910–922.
Volpe, A. (2019, May 6). Why You Need a Network of Low-Stakes, Casual Friendships (Published 2019). The New York Times.…

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3 responses so far ↓

  • James Kirkpatrick // Oct 19th 2020 at 2:22 am

    Suyeon and Hannah,

    This post was very thought provoking! I keep thinking about who my 1500 people are, and I keep trying to decide who my top 5 best friends are as well. After reading about Dunbar’s number, I realized that I follow more than 1500 people on instagram (and other social media outlets), and i would consider most of the people i follow acquaintances, at least. So, i wonder if new supplemental research that considers the effects of social media would develop a different (maybe higher) number than 1500. Interesting!

    Hannah, your paragraph gave a great perspective on friendship forming. It is important to never take your social group for granted, because different areas of life can lead to different needs and desires from support groups, each acquaintance that you meet could potentially fill those social needs. great stuff!

    Great post, enjoyed it!

  • Anonymous // Oct 19th 2020 at 10:36 pm

    Hey Suyeon and Hannah,

    I loved how you started this off by having us visualize – it was a fun little way to get the blog post rolling.

    Suyeon’s point about it not mattering whether you are an extrovert or an introvert in terms of how many friends and acquaintances it is possible for you to include in your social network – we all have limited brain size – is interesting to bring up. I think that it’s natural to feel that if a person is an extrovert and loves to be with and meet new people all the time, that person would have more friends in their social network. However, that’s actually not the case! We all basically are on a level playing field in terms of how many people we can keep in our layers of our social circle.

    I love reading all of this evidence supporting weak tie interactions because it’s making me re-evaluate how I should interact with strangers. It is so important to have this outer circle and can really benefit us! I should really step out of my comfort zone more and not be afraid to spark a conversation with a stranger.

    — Camerin

  • Patrick Adolphus // Oct 20th 2020 at 1:42 am

    @Suyeon I wonder how the author of that paper came up with that stratification because I feel like I definitely have more than 5 close friends. Furthermore, it seems strange that the people in the second layer of 150 people would amount to only 9 minutes of meaningless interaction. I feel as though I’ve definitely had longer meaningful interactions with complete strangers who I’ll never see again. I definitely understand that the number of relationships we can maintain at any given time is limited, but I don’t know if I agree with Dunbar’s methodology. I’d definitely be interested in revisiting the mathematical basis for his conclusion and I’d also like to see someone try to replicate his findings.

    @Hannah In the paper we read, it plotted the difference between the number of weak tie interactions for any given day and the average number of weak tie interactions, so although we are now seeing less people than normal, I wonder how long it would take before we grow accustomed to a new lower average in which case we do not need to see as many people for the same effect.

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