How many friends can the average person truly have?

How many friends can one person reasonably maintain? This question has long fascinated sociologists and psychologists alike. With the advent of social media, people now have larger online networks than ever before. However, many wonder if these connections constitute real friendship. Let’s explore what the research says about the upper limits of human relationships.

What is the Dunbar Number?

In the 1990s, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed that natural group sizes for humans depend on relative neocortex size. After studying various primates, he concluded that most people can comfortably maintain only 150 stable relationships at a time. This theoretical cognitive limit is now known as Dunbar’s number.

Dunbar arrived at this number by studying both primates and hunter-gatherer societies. He found that primate groups tended to have maximum sizes proportional to their brains. Extrapolating to humans, the size of our neocortex suggests a natural group of about 150. Furthermore, an analysis of 148 hunter-gatherer camps found that their community sizes ranged from 30 to 150 people.

The Dunbar number represents an estimated cognitive limit to the number of people with whom you can form social bonds and maintain stable relationships. According to Dunbar, 150 is the maximum capacity for meaningful connections where everyone knows everyone else within the group.

What constitutes a friendship?

To understand how many friends is possible, we first need to define what friendship means. Friendships are voluntary, personal relationships grounded in mutual affection, trust, respect, and support. True friends engage in shared interests and activities that bring joy and fulfillment. They confide in each other and provide emotional support during difficult times.

Casual acquaintances and activity partners don’t necessarily qualify as friends. For a person to be considered a friend, the relationship should involve some degree of caring, understanding, and shared history over time. Both individuals must invest in the friendship for it to be meaningful.

Levels of friendships

Within Dunbar’s number, researchers have identified different levels of friendships that people can maintain:

  • 5 close friends – intimates you trust with your innermost thoughts and feelings.
  • 15 good friends – ones you see or communicate with regularly.
  • 50 friends – people you’d spend time with and help out.
  • 150 meaningful contacts – includes close family members along with friends.

So while the total network size averages around 150, the number of true, close friendships is much smaller – likely around 20.

Why is 150 the limit?

There are a few key reasons why Dunbar’s number holds up as an upper bound for friendship capacity:

Time investment

Maintaining relationships requires an investment of time and social capital. This involves one-on-one or group interactions, shared activities, conversations, or simply keeping up with someone’s personal life events. To keep up regular contact with 150 people would require a significant time commitment that becomes unmanageable.

Cognitive capacity

Humans can only track so many personal connections and individual story arcs at once. Our mental capability to recall details and keep up with 150 different people’s lives taps out at Dunbar’s number.

Emotional bandwidth

Quality friendships require vulnerability, empathy, and intimacy. This level of emotional availability can only be sustained for a small number of people before feeling drained. The human psyche can only handle so much intensity in close relationships.


Friendships need to be reciprocal to survive. Both people must invest effort and interest. With larger networks, reciprocity starts to break down because relationships become imbalanced.

Do social media friends count?

The rise of social media has allowed people to amass online networks of over a thousand “friends” on platforms like Facebook. However, most researchers agree these connections do not represent real or close friendships. Social media interactions lack the depth and reciprocity of in-person contacts.

One study found the average Facebook user actively communicates with only around 4 people on their friend list. Social media platforms may expand your acquaintances, but they do not fundamentally alter the biological and cognitive underpinnings of friendship capacity. The Dumpar number continues to represent an upper limit on meaningful relationships.

Factors that affect friendship capacity

While 150 marks the average limit, certain factors influence an individual’s personal capacity for friends:


Introverts tend to prefer fewer closer friends, while extroverts often have more friends, but with less intimacy.

Life stage

Younger people starting families or careers may have fewer friends than retirees with ample free time.

Mental health

Depression or anxiety can make people withdraw from friendships. Serious conditions like schizophrenia lower capacity even further.


Those on the autism spectrum often have difficulty navigating complex social relationships and may only manage a few friendships.

Cognitive decline

Dementia lowers cognitive capacity to track social ties, gradually shrinking a person’s social network.

So while 150 serves as a mean limit, individual friendship capacity can range higher or lower depending on situational factors.

Strategies for maintaining friendships

Assuming you approach the cognitive maximum for friends, here are some tips for sustaining those connections:

  • Invest time into each friendship proportional to its importance.
  • Schedule one-on-one interactions to nurture close friends.
  • Participate in group events to strengthen bonds with wider network.
  • Communicate frequently, especially with long-distance friends.
  • Make an effort to deepen a few key friendships per year.
  • Let go of toxic or draining relationships to free up capacity.
  • Share meaningful experiences to create mutual fond memories.

Concentrate your limited time and emotional bandwidth on the essential people in your life. Let go of low-quality connections and casual acquaintances to focus on the core friendships that bring you joy.

Can online friendships work?

While online-only friends generally don’t satisfy emotional needs like in-person contacts, the internet does enable you to sustain more meaningful connections over distance. Digital communication removes geographic barriers that historically severed childhood or college friendships.

Tools like video chat and social media provide high-bandwidth communication channels approximating face-to-face interactions. This facilitates maintenance of closer friendships that otherwise would have faded.

However, exclusively online friends still lack critical elements like physical touch, sharing activities, or being present during difficult moments. So while digital platforms enable preserving more contacts, they likely won’t increase your core circle of close friends.

Tips for making new friends as an adult

Most people find their social circles shrinking as adult responsibilities displace the constant proximity that fosters childhood and college friendships. However, cultivating new meaningful connections remains important for mental health. Here are some approaches for making friends later in life:

  • Take a class or join a club based on an interest or hobby.
  • Volunteer for a cause important to you.
  • Attend or organize community events like concerts or festivals.
  • Reach out to familiar acquaintances you’d like to know better.
  • Try new activities or groups related to fitness, arts, or learning.
  • Use apps like Meetup to connect with people who share your interests.
  • Talk to neighbors in your apartment or condo building.
  • Adopt a dog and visit the same dog park.
  • Say yes to social invitations, even if it’s outside your comfort zone.

The key is putting yourself in situations that expose you to like-minded potential friends with shared interests or values. Nurture those new connections by continuing to spend time together.

Signs you may have too many friends

While we all need human connection, having an excessive number of friendships comes with downsides:

  • Feeling constantly drained by social obligations.
  • Resentment when friends demand too much time or emotional support.
  • Stress from trying to balance conflicting needs from many friends.
  • Difficulty giving any one friend the attention they deserve.
  • Surface-level connections spread too thin.
  • “Friends” who are really more akin to acquaintances.

If your calendar is double-booked every weekend with social engagements, or you compulsively accumulate online friends, you may be spreading yourself too thin. Periodically audit your relationships and consider trimming back peripheral members that aren’t enhancing your life.

Options for managing a friend group that’s too large

If your network exceeds yourbandwidth, here are some ways to scale it back:

  • Politely decline invites from peripheral friends or distant acquaintances.
  • Let connections fade naturally rather than forcing abrupt cuts.
  • Spend more one-on-one time with your inner circle to strengthen those bonds.
  • Gradually mute or unfollow excessive online connections.
  • Refer overwhelmed friends to professional mental health resources.
  • Check in less frequently via texts or social media.
  • Reframe busy periods as opportunities to focus on yourself or close family.

The goal is not to hurt anyone’s feelings, but to ensure your social capacity aligns with your needs. You can’t be all things to all people, so thoughtfully direct your effort toward the essential few.

Potential benefits of having fewer friends

While friendships undoubtedly enrich life, having fewer, higher-quality connections offers advantages like:

  • Less stress and anxiety from juggling too many social obligations.
  • Stronger bonds and a sense of real mutual understanding.
  • More time for personal relationships, interests, or self-care.
  • Not feeling spread thin across many superficial friendships.
  • A sense of intimacy from sharing deeper life experiences.
  • Receiving fulfilling support during difficult times.

Evaluate your social portfolio – having a small circle of genuine friends who uplift you is far more valuable than a sprawling network of Draining obligations. Life’s too short for that!

Focus on quality over quantity

Rather than fixating on a specific friendship number, shift perspective to quality over quantity. Invest in the people who matter most and bring fulfillment. Be a thoughtful friend yourself by providing emotional support when needed. A few deep connections built on trust, understanding, and shared experience are worth more than any quantity of casual contacts.


Dunbar’s number remains a robust estimate of friendship capacity – most people max out with around 150 meaningful relationships, including about 15 close friends. While digital platforms enable more connections, they do not fundamentally expand human cognitive limits. Focus on nurturing high-quality bonds that sustain you. The deepest human experiences arise through intimate emotional connections with people we truly know and support. Value those friends as the precious, limited resources they are.

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