How many friends does a man need?

Celebrity footballer David Beckham says he has just three close friends. Do men need any more than that?

David Beckham is one of the most famous men on the planet, admired and respected throughout the footballing world and beyond.

Yet David Beckham only has three close friends. Becks admitted recently that a group of 20 close pals had gradually dwindled over the years to just three.

But before you shed tears on Becks’ behalf, old golden balls also said that he’s more than content with that figure. Speaking to US Men’s Health magazine, Beckham said:

“I’ve got my wife. I’ve got my four kids. I’ve got parents, grandparents still, and three really good friends. It’s all you need. I’d rather have three really good friends than 20 good friends.”

So is it true? Does a bloke need just three close friends? MSN Him investigates.

Men are hardwired to have fewer friends than women

If your girlfriend makes new friends at the drop of a hat and you still go out with two blokes you’ve known since school, don’t be too hard on yourself because you might not be a social leper after all. There’s some evidence that men are hardwired to have fewer friends than women.

Scientists have found that men and women react differently to stressful or dangerous situations. Men release adrenalin, the ‘fight or flight’ hormone that prepares us to either run away or tough it out. Women release adrenalin, too, but according to a study by scientists at the University of California, women also release a touchy-feely hormone called oxytocin.

What that means is that women can fight or run away if they want, but they can also employ a different strategy: they can ‘tend and befriend’. Put simply, in hard times men tough it out while women gather new friends and allies around them, which means women tend to have more friends overall.

And as far as health is concerned, it could be a case of the more friends the merrier. According to Terri Apter, a social psychologist at Cambridge University and co-author of Best Friends, “social connectivity – whether that’s with friends, family or neighbours – increases health and longevity. The difference is that women have more friends to turn to more often, so they get more benefit.”

So how many friends does science say men need?

So how many friends should a bloke have? Well, according to Oxford University anthropologist Professor Robin Dunbar, author of How Many Friends Does One Person Need? the answer might be 150.

Professor Dunbar believes that the maximum amount of friends anyone can have is about 150, a size set by our brains. We simply can’t keep on top of friendships with any more people than that.

But if 150 sounds like 147 more than you have, don’t worry. There are nuances to Professor Dunbar’s theory. The 150 figure includes family members, close colleagues and acquaintances. Dunbar actually identifies an inner core of intimates numbering just five.

Suddenly, Becks’ figure of three close friends starts looking a bit more realistic.

Can one friend be enough?

Even more surprising findings come from a study by researchers at Cornell University in the US. They asked 2,000 adults how many friends they would discuss “important matters” with. The average came out at just two.

What’s more, nearly half the respondents listed just one close confidante (and a sad 4% listed none at all). The average figure of two is down from three when the last study of its kind was carried out 25 years ago.

Are we losing friends? Chief researcher Martin Brashears thinks not, and suggests that – like Becks – we’re just getting better at honing our social circles.

“Rather than our networks getting smaller overall, what I think may be happening is we’re simply classifying a smaller proportion of our networks as suitable for important discussions,” he argues.

People with hundreds of Facebook friends might be confused by this result, but Brashears says that, “in the internet age, you can be friends on Facebook, but you’re not really friends unless you interact.”

Less is more

Mark Vernon, author of The Philosophy of Friendship, agrees that – while some of us seem to have lots of friends (on Facebook and elsewhere) – the number of close friends anyone can have is likely to be between six and 12. He thinks friendship is about quality not quantity.

Experts also agree that we have different friends for different reasons. Men may have a mate they always go to the football with, a friend they’ve known since childhood and who remains their closest confidante, and a bloke with whom they shared the agonies and ecstasies of early adulthood – through university and into the world of work.

And then, of course, there are female friends. According to Kate Taylor, relationship expert for dating site, any man could benefit from having one close female friend.

“Men might find it easier to open up to a female friend about emotional problems than they would to another man,” she says.

The important thing is to have a range of friends offering different qualities, says relationship counsellor Elly Prior. “Some friends can be great for practical support, but they might not do tears. Others are lousy at emotional support, but are great for an evening out. Some friends will always come with some really good advice and then there are the stars who can offer it all.”

If men have a bunch of friends like these, who they can turn to in both good times and bad, the size of their social circle probably doesn’t matter all that much.

“Having a good social network is really important for our mental well-being,” says Elly Prior. “But it really isn’t about the number – it’s much more about how accessible your friends are.”

Beckham may be right

So if Becks has three really close friends who he interacts with regularly, he could be right that “it’s all I need”.

Men may be hardwired to have fewer friends than women, and there may be certain health advantages in building a large social circle. But to realise those benefits, you have to interact regularly with each and every one. Three may be at the low end of the optimum range, but most experts agree that it’s much better to have five friends you see regularly than 20 you hardly see at all.


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