Chances are good you are less popular than your friends. Poorer, too. Probably they are also better looking. Sorry. This is called “the friendship paradox,” and it’s just logical fact.
It its most basic level, the friendship paradox goes like this: Since you are more likely to be friends with people who are popular (they have more friends, after all) than people who are unpopular, the average number of friends your friends have is probably higher than your number of friends.
First observed by sociologist Scott L. Feld in 1991, the truth of the friendship paradox is supported by real life observation, mathematics, and especially by social media, where analysis of social network connections show that people are more likely to follow others who have more connections, indicating that any one individual on a social network is, on average, less popular than their friends.
It’s an established enough idea that virologists use the friendship paradox to fight communicable diseases. If you ask a number of random people to suggest a friend to be vaccinated, a popular person will be chosen by more random people than an unpopular person. Since they have more social connections, they’re more likely to spread a disease to more people, and so a super-spreaders can be identified and inoculated, slowing the spread more effectively than would identifying “vulnerable” communities or giving out vaccines at random.
Researchers have taken the idea one step further, identifying the “generalized friendship paradox,” which posits that “popular” people are also more likely to be richer, more attractive, and happier than less-popular people—and since you are more likely to be friends with someone who is more popular, the average of your friends’ wealth, attractiveness, and happiness is likely to be higher than yours too.
But do not sink into a pit of despair over how ugly and useless you are compared to your friends. It’s actually not as bad as it seems.
Skewing the average
While the friendship paradox is real (and supported by complicated math) on a macro level, when you drill down to an individual level, it gets murkier and less depressing. At issue is the idea of “average” popularity, and the way a few individuals with a very high number of friends can skew the numbers for everyone else. For example, if you have 100 twitter followers, and you follow one twitter account with 100,000 followers and 10 twitter accounts with 50 followers each, the average popularity of your twitter friends is going to be higher than yours—even though 9 out of your ten friends have fewer followers than you. So you could easily be more popular than most of your friends and still be less popular than the average of all your friends. In other words: Very popular people ruin everything, even averages.
The other issue with the friendship paradox is your personal sampling bias. When comparing your own popularity, attractiveness, and wealth against that of others, you’re generally only looking at your own social circle.. There are likely huge tranches of the population who are uglier, less cool, and less rich than anyone in your friend group, but you barely know they exist, because why would you be friends with them?
Think of going to the gym. It’s easy to think, “I’m the weakest, most spaghetti-armed MFer on earth,” but it only seems that way because you’re looking at a bunch of people who bothered to go to the gym at all—everyone at home on their couch has been left out of your sample.
The friendship paradox versus the self-evaluation maintenance theory
All that said, while comparing your own accomplishments or popularity to an average of your entire social circle’s is useless (and comparing yourself at all can correlate to low-self esteem and social anxiety), measuring yourself against the people closest to you is inevitable.
The “self-evaluation maintenance theory” concerns the way we maintain our self-image through comparing ourselves to others. According to this theory, our self-esteem can go up when the people we care about succeed, as if their success has been reflected onto us. But the opposite can happen as well: The success of a loved one can lead to a decrease in our self-esteem.
There are a couple factors at play here:. The first is how close we are to the person we’re comparing ourselves to. A comparison is only meaningful if the person we’re comparing ourselves to is someone we’re close to. In other words: The success of a person you met at party once will (theoretically) have way less of an impact (either negative or positive) on your own self-evaluation than the success of your best friend.
The second factor concerns how we define ourselves. According to self-evaluation and maintenance theory, if a loved one succeeds at something we regard as important in ourselves, we are likely to compare ourselves to them and feel worse for it. If the activity is something that we don’t regard as important to us, we’re more likely to bask in reflected glory, and enjoy the self-esteem boost that comes from it. For example, if both you and your twin brother play baseball, and he makes varsity but you do not, you’re not going to feel great about yourself. But if you play baseball and he plays violin, you’re going to feel better about yourself if he is promoted to first chair in the orchestra.
All of the above assumes you are not one of those rare super-spreaders of popularity, of course. If you are, nice work. Thanks for making the rest of us feel bad about ourselves.