You’re not just insecure: Study reveals how your friends really are richer, happier and more popular than you

Scientists publish first mathematical proof explaining the reason it might always seem like everyone else is doing better than you – because (on average) they are

Adam Withnall
Wednesday 15 January 2014 11:57
If your friends' pictures on Facebook and Instagram make it seem like they are leading richer, happier, more exotic lives than you, don't worry - it was always statistically likely to be the case
If your friends' pictures on Facebook and Instagram make it seem like they are leading richer, happier, more exotic lives than you, don't worry - it was always statistically likely to be the case

We all have them. Those friends on Facebook or Instagram who seem to be richer, more popular and more successful than you. Well, it turns out that, on average, they probably are.

According to a new - and pretty depressing - study, researchers have shown for the first time that it's not just our own insecurities and aspirations that make us look longingly at our peers.

Scientists from universities in France and Finland claim that their discovery is based on the “generalised friendship paradox”. This reveals that most people have only a small number of friends. However, a handful of people have a significantly greater number of friends. It is this second category that distorts how you regard your friendship group as a whole.

They say their study doesn't just apply to friendship and can also be related to wealth, the number of sexual partners people have and how successful they are.

It could also help to explain why active social networking service users are less happy.

In other words, there is a genuine logical excuse for anyone who wonders why they don’t seem to have as many friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter as everyone else.

“The paradox can be understood as a sampling bias in which individuals having more friends are more likely to be observed by their friends,” explained Young-Ho Eom at the University of Toulouse and Hang-Hyun Jo at Aalto University in Finland.

The pair have taken this principle one step further, and established that positive characteristics within networks – such as wealth, apparent success, and even happiness – will on average be experienced more by other people.

Appropriately, the researchers tested their theory by looking at scientists who had co-authored reports with each other – a traceable substitute in the study for “friendship”.

They then looked at other positive traits – such as number of publications and citations – and found that these so-called “network characteristics” followed the same mathematical patterns as the network itself.

The maths works in exactly the same way when scaled up to larger networks like friendship groups, the scientists said – in other words, on average your friends will indeed be richer and happier than you.

Eom and Jo call this the “generalized friendship paradox” (GFP). They said: “People’s perception of the world and themselves depends on the status of their friends, colleagues and peers.

“When we compare our characteristics like popularity, income, reputation, or happiness to those of our friends, our perception of ourselves might be distorted as expected by the GFP.”

They said that while we will naturally be biased towards thinking ourselves “worse” when we compare ourselves to our so-called “better” friends, the same still applies “comparing to the average friend”.

Referring to previous studies which showed active Facebook users described themselves as less happy on average than others, Eom and Jo added: “This might be the reason why active online social networking service users are not happy – when it is much easier to compare to other people.”

In other words, don't get annoyed the next time your friend posts a picture of an engagement, a new car or a status about a promotion. Statistically speaking, they were always going to be better than you anyway.

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