If you are at all social, chances are you’ve felt — or feel — that your friends are more popular than you are. The fact of the matter is that basic arithmetic has proven this hunch to be true, and it’s called the “friendship paradox.” Now a recent study has given us more justification to have an inferiority complex by proving that our friends are generally better than us.

In 1991, a sociologist named Scott Feld published a famous paper that mathematically figured out that a person is more likely to be friends with someone who has more friends than with a person who has fewer friends. At the time, social networks had nothing to do with the Internet. Yet bloggers, Facebook, and Twitter later confirmed that this trend pertains to any network where some people are more popular than others.

The idea is based on simple yet unintuitive number-crunching of how people are connected together. The premise of the paradox lies in the fact that most people have few friends while a small amount of people has a lot of friends. This popular minority is the outlier that raises the average number of friends that your friends have and makes you look less like a social butterfly.

Because this paradox is a rule of thumb in a social network, Young-Ho Eom of the University of Toulouse and Hang-Hyun Jo of Aalto University in Finland wanted to see how far it would apply to other aspects within a communal web that aren’t as obvious, such as happiness and wealth. To assess these features, Eom and Jo analyzed the academic networks of scientists. They first verified that the paradox applies to this scenario by showing that the co-authors of scientists often had more co-authors themselves.

But the findings go even further. Eom and Jo also discovered that these co-authors also had more publications and citations, which is the validating bread and butter of being a successful scientist. The authors of the study said this phenomenon exemplified the “generalized friendship paradox.” According to this rule, the authors explain in their paper, you perceive that “your friends have on average higher characteristics than you have.”

Ultimately, the finding sheds light on how people’s perception of themselves and the world is shaped by the status of their friends, colleagues, and peers. The generalized friendship paradox predicts that the way we view ourselves becomes distorted when we compare our popularity, income, reputation, or happiness to those of our friends. This warped self-perception happens simply when we compare ourselves to others regardless of whether they are an “average” friend or “better” friend. “This might be the reason why active online social networking service users are not happy [since] it is much easier to compare to other people in online social media,” the authors concluded.


Source: Eom Y H, Jo H H. Generalized friendship paradox in complex networks. University of Toulouse, Aalto University. 2014.