Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible. - Dalai Lama
Social networks: Dunbar's 5-15-50-150 model (assessing how we're doing)
1.) Please would you download a personal community map (see below) and begin to fill it in.
2.) While filling in the map and afterwards, answer the items on the associated questionnaire ... and start to jot down possible intentions too.
If you'd like to clarify and potentially look after your personal social network better, a good place to start is to chart it. You can download a simple blank chart here either in Word doc or PDF format. Filling in the whole "Personal community map" can take a good hour or two, so possibly ... at this stage ... just put your support clique into the most central circle. The first part of this sequence looked at the support clique - see Social networks: Dunbar's 5-15-50-150 model (support clique/closest relationships). Support clique members can be identified in a number of ways. They're those you feel emotionally closest too. You're likely to be in contact with them at least weekly. They probably include people who you would first turn to in times of extreme stress or catastrophe. And also they are the people who you especially value spending time with. Self-determination theory can also help us clarify who fits into the support clique. They are likely to be people you think of when answering questions about getting your need for Relatedness met - see Social networks: the value of a self-determination theory lens. Different people in the support clique probably serve overlapping, but somewhat different functions. One might well put one's children in the support clique but, especially if they are young, one probably isn't going to lean on them strongly when stressed. You might even want to put pets into the support clique if they are very important for your wellbeing.
There may be one or two support clique members who you position especially close to the central marker (which represents you) - see "The structure of online social networks mirrors those in the offline world". It's helpful to add a few descriptive labels by each name - are they "K" (genetically-related kin), "CK" (kin by couple or marriage relationship to oneself or to other kin), or "F" (non-related friend)? Roughly how many years have you known each of them? Are they "L" (local) or "NL" (non-local), where local refers to someone who lives close by - say approximately within an hour or so's travel (it's an indicator of face-to-face accessibility). It's likely to be useful too to put in a simple, approximate measure of current emotional closeness beside each name, with E10 representing an immensely close relationship down to E0 representing no sense of emotional connection. These emotional closeness scores decrease as one moves from the inner support clique to the outer layers of one's personal social network.
Now what can you learn from this developing personal community map? Here is a question sheet that again you can download either in Word doc or PDF format. The first question on the sheet is most relevant to one's inner support clique, although one's sympathy group (see the last post) partially serves this close emotional function as well. How do you score these particularly emotionally close relationships in your life using the "0" (there are no satisfactory really emotionally close relationships in my life) to "100" (the number, level of closeness, availability, and how I make time for these relationships is just about perfect for me)? This first question is probably the most important in this whole social network assessment - see, for example "A four year analysis of social capital and health status of Canadians: the difference that love makes" - and, as mentioned before it links closely to our answers to how well we're getting our need for S-DT's Relatedness satisfied.
As you answer these questions, it's worth being aware of a rather strange aspect of assessing our social networks - we're likely to be over-critical about them, feeling that we don't have as many friends as others do ... or that we're not as close to our friends & relatives as others are. This is surprising as human beings often see themselves through rose-coloured glasses. If, for example, you ask people how good a driver they think they are, very few will say they're below average. And the same applies to many aspects of our talents and our lives more generally ... we often over-estimate how we rate compared to others. This doesn't usually apply when we assess our social networks - see, for example "Home alone: Why people believe others' social lives are richer than their own". It seems this is due to comparing ourselves with others we know who are particularly sociable. You're more likely to get a clearer idea of how your social life compares with others by deliberately trying to think of people you know who seem to be 'averagely' sociable. This 'marking our networks over-critically' has been noted by other researchers - "From misperception to social connection: Correlates and consequences of overestimating others’ social connectedness" - and this can decrease our sense of wellbeing. Interestingly though it can sometimes have the beneficial effect of encouraging ourselves to be more sociable, so this over-critical sense can sometimes have helpful results.
Robin Dunbar suggests that, despite very considerable differences between individuals, on average we have roughly 5 people in our closest relationships support clique and and roughly an additional 10 in our second layer sympathy group (making roughly a total of 15 in these two inner layers of our networks). Cornelia Wrzus from the Max Planck Institute in Berlin and colleagues produced arguably the best estimates of typical network size, when they looked at 277 relevant studies in their paper "Social network changes and life events across the life span: a meta-analysis". They used the term personal network to describe "a subnetwork of closer, personal relationships in the global network such as family members, friends, and other close confidants. Personal networks are sometimes termed support networks, as they are often seen as a resource for people’s health and well-being through the exchange of support among closer network members." It's not totally clear from this description whether they're describing Dunbar's inner support clique here or a combination of the support clique and the sympathy group. The typical numbers they reported are shown below:
And the typical numbers of "friends" in networks is shown here:
Wrzus & colleagues found that network size typically reached a maximum in one's 20's, plateaued into one's 30's, and then gradually decreased. This decrease seemed to occur for a series of reasons ... some caused by 'exits' from the network due, for example, to re-locations, life changes & deaths. Some of the decrease also seemed deliberate. In one's 20's having a broad network may well serve our needs for gaining experience & learning, while in our 30's & subsequently we may be focusing more on relationships that are now of particular importance to us. It's a little like trying lots of different kinds of restaurants initially and then settling down to going mostly to the ones we personally particularly enjoy.
The second question on touch is important too. This year's fascinating research paper "More than just sex: affection mediates the association between sexual activity and well-being" highlights that sex increases subsequent affection & positive emotion, which in turn increases wellbeing & relationship/life satisfaction. But touch is about much more than just sex - see "The communicative functions of touch in humans". As the paper "Non-verbal channel use in the communication of emotion" highlights, touch is a key non-verbal way of communicating love, care & sympathy. When touch is used sensitively & appropriately, it is a wonderful thing. It can boost a deep sense of security - "Touch promotes state attachment security", doing this in non-intrusive ways - "Touch is a covert but effective mode of soliciting and providing social support", encouraging effective cooperation -"Tactile communication, cooperation, and performance", while promoting psychological health - "The neurobiology shaping affective touch", and physical health too - "Does hugging provide stress-buffering social support: a study of susceptibility to upper respiratory infection and illness".
It's a bit like gardening. Please don't despair if you score yourself low on this support clique question. You can definitely do something about improving your situation. Even if you score yourself pretty highly, it's worth asking yourself ... how can I cherish these relationships even more? Can I be more creative and regular with the time I spend with these people to nourish the relationships even better? Often 1:1 time is especially beneficial, talking at depth, and valuing having this closeness in our lives.
And usually, if we want to grow the strength & value of our support clique, it's useful to look out to our sympathy group. For more on this, see the previous blog post in this sequence - "Personal social networks (2nd post): the sympathy group & the full active network". Precisely how you fill in your personal community map is much less important than how much it helps you understand and respond to the state of your personal social network. I'm a member of a number of groups - badminton players, a book group, a therapists' supervision group, and so on. Extending the meaning of 'group', I also have contacts who I know from university and medical school. When I fill in my personal community map, I put the names of people I know into approximate segments - like slices of a cake. So there's the medical segment, the badminton players segment, and so on. Of course, especially closer in with the support clique and sympathy groups, some people could potentially be put into several of these interest & activity segments - so this is a rough & ready, though potentially helpful, way of going about things.
You can work on filling in the map over a number of sittings. It can be very interesting to do. I tend to put in K/CK/F, Years Know, L/NL & Emotional Closeness labels for all support clique and sympathy group members. And I extend this labelling out to the affinity group third layer too. Good to answer the 3rd, 4th & 5th sections of the personal community map: questions sheet now. It may well be that these are the areas where it's initially easiest to make a difference to your community map scores. After all, as the saying goes "It takes a long time to make an old friend" ... but you have to start somewhere, and getting to know a new friend can sometimes be as much fun as spending time with an old one. So, if it looks like it would be helpful, consider how you could increase your shared activities and interests. Consider if there are interest groups you could try joining. Physical exercise/sport, entertainment, hobbies/crafts, subjects you'd like to learn more about, volunteering opportunities ... there are so many options available. Organisations like meetup.com and, here in my home town, volunteeredinburgh.org.uk are examples of the many information resources that are just a click away.
It can feel a bit of a business-like way of going about things, but the concept of having a social time budget is accurate & can be very helpful. We only have so many hours a week that we can realistically 'spend' on nourishing & enjoying relationships. How do we allocate this budget? Are we making regular enough & high enough quality time for those who are already close to us? Are there people you can highlight on your community map who you would like to bring in closer? How could you do this? Are there people who are getting too much of your time budget? Should you see them a bit less frequently or in less time-demanding situations? Jot your thoughts & feelings down on the personal community question sheet. It will probably take planning, time & effort, but this is likely to be well worthwhile. Think of the many strong benefits of having a good social network for your psychological resilience, your physical health, and for your overall wellbeing.
The blog posts "Personal social networks (4th post): birds of a feather flock together" and "Personal social networks (6th post): how can we look after our relationships better?" give helpful suggestions. I find various metaphors useful - for example 'mountains', 'food', 'gardens' & 'music-making'. So a healthy social network with its approximate (1-2) 5-15-50-150 structure looks a bit like a mountain. And we want a mountain-shaped personal social network, not a flat-topped mound, nor a flagpole! And relationships are a bit like 'food'. Different kinds of relationships, different layers of our network, serve somewhat different functions. We need this varied diet to be healthy & resilient. And we want to avoid too much that's toxic in our diet too ... just as we want to resolve or make more distance from toxic aspects of our social networks - see, for example, the post "Personal social networks (5th post): the frequency of conflict".
Do jot down ideas that emerge from these ways of looking at things onto your personal community questions sheet. And another relationship metaphor is that our network is like a 'garden'. If we don't look after it regularly, watering the different plants, they will wither. And we may look at sections of the garden and realise they need more colour. And this might involve encouraging growth in plants/relationships that are already there, or it might involve bringing in new plants/new people into our network. And the last of these four metaphors - 'music making' - highlights that we simply will find it much easier to 'make music' & relate easily & tunefully with some people than others. The "... birds of a feather" blog post gives hints here, although some friendships happily will reach right across dissimilarities & boundaries and delight us with differences as well as shared characteristics.