- A new paper finds many people think everyone else is more popular than they are, but they’re wrong.
- These thoughts may contribute to decreased well-being.
- But if you think everyone else has slightly more friends than you do, you may be more motivated to go out and socialise.
- The researchers looked only at first-year college students, so the findings might not be generalizable.
Only recently did I work up the nerve to go to a diner or coffee shop alone. Even now, when I do, I’ll sit there hunched over my sandwich or cup of tea and cast furtive glances at all the twosomes around me, knowing exactly what they’re thinking: What. A. Loser. She can’t even find someone to keep her company for half an hour?
On a rational level, I am aware that no one is thinking that — they have got their own problems and a person eating a sandwich alone in New York City isn’t all that attention-grabbing.
But my inner monologue in these moments reflects a greater, more persistent anxiety that everyone everywhere has more friends, more reliable sandwich-eating partners, than I do.
A new paper says I’m not alone — no pun intended — in thinking this way. The paper, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, suggests that we all think everyone else has more friends than we do — and we’re wrong.
A team of researchers led by Ashley Whillans, who was at the time a graduate student at the University of British Columbia, conducted two studies using first-year students at UBC as participants. For the first study, they asked more than 1,000 students how many close friends they had at school, and how many close friends they thought other UBC first-years had at school.
Results showed that many students tended to think they were less popular than everyone else. On average, first-years reported having 3.63 close friends and believed that other first-years had 4.15 close friends.
For the second study, researchers asked nearly 400 first-year students some additional questions, including how much time they spent socialising with people they’d met at school and how much time they thought other first-years spent doing the same. Students also answered questions about their well-being and loneliness.
A similar pattern emerged: Many students guessed, incorrectly, that other students spent more time socialising.
Here’s where things get really interesting. The researchers found that students who believed that their classmates had more close friends than they did also reported lower levels of well-being.
But the researchers had students in the second study fill out these surveys twice, about four to five months apart. And they found that students who believed their classmates had slightly more close friends than they did reported making more friends in those four to five months than students who believed their classmates had many more close friends than they did.
That is to say: Feeling a bit bad about yourself can, at least to some extent, be a motivating factor. Earlier research suggests that comparing yourself to others is generally a bad idea, because you may only see positive emotions and assume that you’re the only one struggling. This study suggests the effects of social comparison are perhaps more nuanced than they appear.
It’s possible that these findings can be explained by what mathematicians call the friendship paradox.
As Steven Strogatz writes in The New York Times, a group of friends on average has a higher number of friends than the individuals in the group. That’s because the average is weighted: “Popular friends … contribute disproportionately to the average, since besides having a high [friend] score, they’re also named as friends more frequently.”
The researchers acknowledge the friendship paradox, but say it’s unlikely that it explains their findings because they asked participants to estimate the number of friends that the average first-year has, and not one of their own friends.
It’s also possible that these results don’t extend beyond college first-years — though I personally get the “everyone’s more popular than I am” feeling all the time.
I suppose, whether you’re a college student or a full-fledged adult, it comes down to some good old self-talk: I feel this way, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect reality. It’s something I’ll try on my next solo lunch date.
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