No doctor needs to tell most of us that good relationships are essential for our health and peace of mind, yet maintaining social ties in any kind of authentic way requires time and effort. For this reason, perhaps, a new study found that most people put the bulk of their energy into communicating with their inner circle. What may come as a surprise is the researchers also observed that, though the exact number of close relationships varies with each individual, most people manage their social lives in such a way that the numbers remain the same even when the faces change. In other words, having decided to bring a new friend closer, we usually distance ourselves from an old friend. “Although social communication is now easier than ever, it seems that our capacity for maintaining emotionally close relationships is finite,” Felix Reed-Tsochas, James Martin Lecturer in Complex Systems at the Said Business School, University of Oxford, stated in a press release.

You Have a Social Signature

In the past few decades, electronics have radically changed our ability to communicate, and now we can maintain contact globally and instantaneously, across any number of devices. Cell phones, for instance, though first made commercially available sometime in the 1980s, only became ubiquitious in the 1990s. Many who left school and came of age before that era may sometimes wonder if their lives would be different had they been available to them when they were young. Apparently, a new study suggests, everything would be quite the same.

To examine how individuals communicate within a shifting social network, a team of researchers from UK and Finland asked 30 participants (equally divided between males and females) who were in their last year of secondary school and about to move on to either university or work, to complete a questionnaire on their active personal network at three points in time: at the beginning of the study, at 9 months, and at 18 months. Participants listed their relatives as well as their friends, acquaintances, and colleagues, and then they indicated the emotional intensity of each relationship measured on a one-to-10 scale, where 10 is someone “with whom you have a deeply personal relationship.” Compensation for participating in the study was a fully-paid mobile phone, with an18-month contract including 500 free monthly voice minutes (to landlines or mobiles) and unlimited free text messages. For each participant, the researchers obtained itemized monthly phone invoices listing outgoing calls (recipient phone number, time, and duration). Of the original 30 participants, 24 fulfilled the complete 18 month study period.

What did the researchers discover? A small number of people received a disproportionately large percentage of calls from each participant. Within this general pattern, however, the researchers observed individual variation with each participant displaying a characteristic "social signature," or a particular style of communicating with their social network. Even though participants' made new friends during the busy transition from school to university or work, the researchers found that the “individual social signature remains stable and retains its characteristic shape over time and is only weakly affected by network turnover.” In other words, each participant continued to make the same number of calls to those ranked highest in emotional closeness, even as the actual faces — and emotional rankings — changed. "As new network members are added, some old network members are either replaced or receive fewer calls," Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford, stated. "This is probably due to a combination of limited time available for communication and the great cognitive and emotional effort required to sustain close relationships. 

It seems that individuals' patterns of communication are so prescribed that even the efficiencies provided by some forms of digital communication (in this case, mobile phones) are insufficient to alter them." Accommodating change on the one hand, it may be our human nature to resist it on the other.

Source: Dunbar RLM, Reed-Tsochas F, Saramäki J, et al. The persistence of social signatures in human communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2014.