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Humans Can't Juggle More Than 5 Friends At Once

Just as you're deciding whether or not to connect with somebody you don't know on LinkedIn, here comes new research that finds we humans can't handle more than five "friends" at once!

That's right: we humans can only handle so much "social" in our social networking. This finding isn't new -- one study found we can't handle more than 132 social media connections, max -- but now researchers at the University of Sydney in Australia tell us that our true social network is limited to five people, or fewer.

The researchers compared the world's "hunter-gatherer" societies to status-updating societies and found that no matter our lifestyle, our brains tend to develop an emotional attachment to a very, very small number of people. Because biology. As reports:

HarrĂ© and Prokopenko suggest the upper limit on the number of direct friends for most people is about five. The upper limits appear to be based on biology, they note—as the human brain developed, people were living together in small groups that lived as hunter-gatherers. That led to the development of links, which are direct connections between two people, generally two people that have some type of emotional attachment. To form a larger group, it isn't necessary for every person in that group to form a connection with everyone else, all it takes is for a network of connections to exist.

So what do we do when there's more than five people online, or in the room? Well, we think to ourselves: "Those are so-and-so's friends more than mine, so I'll just let so-and-so fill me in on all the important details and juicy gossip from those friends later." We humans like to keep our direct interactions organized, easy and strictly limited in number. It turns out that Friends had one friend too many!

How could this study play out in the workplace? If our "group" has 15 people, then we will create a closer social link to only three of the members. Expand the group to 45 people, and we'll expand our social link within the group to...four people. Basically, we deal with networking by forming small hierarchies within the larger group. Subgroups, if you will.

This is where leadership is crucial to keep any group moving forward together as disparate, distinct subgroups within a group of 45. Hey everyone, let's go this way!

It's also interesting to put this study in the context of social media, which has been all about accumulating as many friends and followers as possible. As hiring managers scan applicants' social media footprints, they may be asking all the wrong questions. Maybe it's not how many connections an applicant has, it's how many of these connections the applicant is actually close to on a regular basis.

Who represents their core group, and why? The applicant may have 1,500 Facebook friends and 5,000+ LinkedIn connections, but who are the five essential people on both sites who get the lion's share of the applicant's attention and keep them connected to the larger online group?** This small detail could be quite illuminating for a hiring manager, actually.

To me, this "quality over quantity" approach to online connections represents the next phase of social media. Social media users will begin to refine their unwieldy social media networks just like a major A-list celebrity who follows only 50 people because it's too overwhelming to follow everyone, all the time. Within a few years, it will become professionally acceptable to say out loud in a job interview:

"I'm connected to only 40 essential people on LinkedIn and that works well for me. Of those 40, I pay attention to five on a daily basis. They're the ones who keep me linked in with what's going on in my field."

LinkedIn probably isn't going to like it, but your brain sure will! I have a feeling smart hiring managers will come around to the idea, too.

** Your mother better be on your Facebook short list!


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