People are social beings. It’s an innate trait, undeniable and inescapable, seated deep in the brain in a pair of little almond-shaped structures called the amygdalae. When these are missing, human beings lose emotional feeling, recognition of the emotional significance of family and friends, and any concept of a social world. They may isolate themselves, avoiding human contact; but there is no loneliness, no sorrow, no tears, because they are unable to comprehend the magnitude of their loss.
In contrast, healthy human beings—amygdalae intact—crave human companionship. As much as our inner cowboy might like the idea of riding off alone into the sunset, real people cannot thrive that way and will eventually, in actual practice, make a confidant of their horse, car or any other possible stand-in for a companion. This is not breaking news, of course. Even before the human need for social bonds was taken up for study by various sciences, it had long been recognized as a fundamental truth by writers and other observers of human nature. And yet the implications of this truth may sometimes pass unappreciated.
“Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!”
“No man is an island, entire of itself,” wrote English renaissance poet John Donne around 1624; “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” A priest as well as a poet, Donne is likely to have read some of the ancient Hebrew writings preserved in the Bible, such as these words attributed to King Solomon: “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment” (Proverbs 18:1, English Standard Version).
Even in modern Western society, branded as individualistic to its core, the imperative of social connection is acknowledged in cultural works of all kinds: “People who need people,” wrote lyricist Bob Merrill in 1964, “are the luckiest people in the world.” The song went on to focus mainly on romantic relationships. But while romantic partners certainly qualify as “people who need people,” they are not by any means the only people who do. We are all in the same boat—whether single, married, old, young, male, female; regardless of race, culture, or any other delineation—human social interaction is key to our survival.
But what is “social connection” anyway? How many and what kinds are important?
Before addressing these questions, it will be useful to define terms and sweep down some of the popular-psychology (pop-psych) cobwebs that may obscure the view when it comes to understanding the importance of social relationships.
Social Animal or Lone Ranger?
The simple word social can evoke a variety of images. Social psychologists use the word to describe humans as beings that live in an organized, interdependent society. The term social skills describes a person’s ability to maintain cooperative interpersonal relationships of any kind, whether they are extremely close bonds or more casual ones. Social bond often refers specifically to friendships, but from a broader perspective it describes the connection between individuals and their society. Colloquially, however, social may have an entirely different connotation. At “a social,” we may chat with people about things that don’t really seem to matter, and in doing so we may judge the interaction to be shallow, unnecessary, frivolous. We may see some people flitting from conversation to conversation and label them “social butterflies,” unable to sustain deep relationships. Or we may see others who prefer to sit on the sidelines; we call them “wallflowers” and assume they have negligible social skills.
Stereotypes such as these are by-products of what may be one of the heaviest of the cobwebs that obscure an accurate understanding of human relationships, one that has always been a hot topic on pop-psych bookshelves: personality typing. Especially popular with the general public are the concepts of extraversion and introversion. These constructs engender passionate debate, with some books extolling the virtues of extraversion while others counter that introversion is the more enlightened state. How accurate are such depictions, and where do they come from? Years and years of research, right?
Certainly a great number of studies have focused on extraverts and introverts, but researchers do not use these terms in the way most people do. What many journalists who report on such studies fail to realize is that before individuals are accepted as research subjects, they must score either very high or very low on psychological tests for extraversion or introversion. Curt and Anne Bartol, both respected psychologists, professors and authors of multiple criminal psychology textbooks, explain that “usually, two out of every three people will score in the ‘average’ range on the extraversion dimension, thus disqualifying them from studies based on extraversion and introversion. Roughly 16 percent of the population are extraverts, and another 16 percent introverts, and the remainder (68 percent) are ambiverts” (Criminal Behavior: A Psychosocial Approach, emphasis added). In other words, studies comparing introverts and extraverts examine people who tend toward the extremes—a minority of the population. It may be tempting to think of extraversion and introversion as two sides of a coin—that each of us is either one or the other—but this is simply not the case. The concept should instead be viewed as a scale or spectrum containing a generous (and generally preferable) middle ground.
Where does the pop-psych concept of introversion and extraversion come from, then? While it has morphed somewhat since its inception, this either-or view of personality was initially developed by Carl Jung, who along with Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler is considered a father of modern psychotherapy. To Jung the distinction was not about social inclinations, however. Rather it concerned the direction in which one’s “psychic energy” flowed; introverts preferred to focus on such things as their inner feelings, dreams and fantasies, while extraverts tended to focus on outward, tangible realities—not just other people but things. Jung, who was undoubtedly intrigued by his own dreams and visions, was also fascinated by mystical traditions—particularly those with heavy symbolism such as Gnosticism, alchemy and Kabbalah. Shadows of these philosophies can be recognized in his views on personality.
Following Jung’s typology to the letter, Katharine Cook Briggs (1875–1968), together with her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers (1897–1980), developed the now popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Although neither was a psychologist, both have been described as keen “observers of human behavior.” Katharine had studied personalities by reading various biographies, so when she came across Jung’s book Psychological Types in the 1920s, it resonated with her at such a level that she brought it to her daughter’s attention, and the two women were motivated to develop a personality test based on its principles. In 1943 the first version of the MBTI was published, and Myers in particular worked over the next few decades to refine the test items in hopes of helping ordinary people identify their Jungian personality type.
While the MBTI is perhaps the most widely administered personality test in popular circles today, it is not as extensively used by psychologists and clinicians. To some degree this is because it is designed specifically to apply Jung’s theories of psychological types—an approach not widely followed by today’s mental health practitioners. Questions are structured for only yes or no answers, with no degrees of choice available. This is because Jungian theory and the MBTI assume that people gravitate toward one pole or the other on personality measures.
In contrast, personality tests such as the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire or the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory gauge personality traits on continuums. Psychologists prefer these tests over the MBTI because of their ability to measure what they purport to measure in mental health assessments. And while many of these other tests also include scales to measure something called “introversion” or “extraversion,” they do not use the terms in the Jungian sense.
With this background in mind as we explore the importance of social relationships, then, it seems that the most helpful approach would be to avoid labeling ourselves and others with generally misunderstood and misapplied terms such as these and to focus instead on the universally shared and well-recognized human need to connect.
How important is our need for social bonds? So important that we come into the world with it, just as we arrive with a need for food and water, clothing and shelter. If any of these requirements is missing, we fail to thrive.
“Do not protect yourself by a fence, but rather by your friends.”
Naturally our first ties are typically with family members, but while these may be among our most formative they are not the only relationships we will need over the course of our lives. Peer relationships begin to have an influence on our development fairly early in childhood, and the prosocial skills we develop during these years affect many measures of health and well-being in adulthood. Studies across cultural contexts indicate that those who lack strong social networks are more likely to succumb to (and have difficulty recovering from) mental and physical illness. As we age, friends tend to outnumber family in these networks, giving them an ever more important role in keeping us healthy.
But besides the benefits to physical, mental and emotional resilience conferred by a solid network of supportive social bonds, friendships serve other important functions. In part, we learn about who we are and who we hope to become through feedback from others. With some of these others, we will have deep and lasting relationships. With some we’ll have more casual relationships. But the importance of what we learn about ourselves from their feedback may have very little to do with the perceived depth of the individual relationship. Even our most casual relationships are capable of influencing us in surprisingly profound ways, as some researchers have found, and even in the Internet age it seems that friendships remain very diverse and complex in the lives of most people.
In their effort to understand this complexity, British social researchers Liz Spencer and Ray Pahl undertook a detailed analysis of the nature of friendship and its role in today’s society. Published in 2006 as Rethinking Friendship: Hidden Solidarities Today, the study mapped the “personal communities” of men and women across different ages, life-course stages, and socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds throughout Britain. The researchers looked for any existing patterns while also observing the rich variety in the way people arrange their social worlds. Interestingly, rather than bolstering fears that the Internet has weakened social ties and made face-to-face interaction obsolete, they found that “there has not been a mass retreat from face-to-face sociability, and it seems that the Internet is mainly used to complement and sustain existing relationships, rather than creating entirely new personal networks.” In examining through in-depth interviews the kinds of relationships people include in their personal communities, Spencer and Pahl observed that family and friends are not necessarily distinct groups in the minds of most. Some friends may be valued as family, while some family members may enjoy more of a friend-like status than others do. They also exposed a depth of field in patterns of friend-making that makes it clear why terms such as extraversion and introversion are woefully inadequate and even misleading when used to describe human modes of social interaction.
“Without knowing something about the quality of different friendships, it is difficult to draw many conclusions from the fact that some people include more than twenty friends [in their personal community maps], others just one or two,” Spencer and Pahl observed. In fact, their study turned up at least seven prominent forms of overall personal communities, eight types of friendships and four kinds of friendship repertoires, a term intended to describe the roles people allow friends to play in their personal community.
For instance, those with a basic friendship repertoire might look only to family members or a partner for supportive, confiding relationships, or might prefer “to sort things out on their own.” They may allow friends to play limited, casual roles, but they do not view friends as confidants or support networks.
People with an intense repertoire define their personal community only by their closest, most complex relationships. Their personal community map would not include any level of friendship beyond, for instance, a best friend or soulmate-type friendship such as a partner or other important family member.
In contrast, those with a focal repertoire would include both simple and complex friendships in their personal community maps, although they would distinguish between a small core of soulmates or confidants alongside a larger variety of associates and “fun” friends.
Last but by no means least (though they do not intend any of their categorizations to describe the full limits of the nature of friendship) is what Spencer and Pahl term broad repertoires. Individuals with a broad friendship repertoire would include both simple and complex friendships, much as those with a focal repertoire might. However, their maps contain an even wider range of friendship types, including representatives of almost all of the eight types of friends: associates, useful contacts, favor friends, fun friends, helpmates, comforters, confidants and soulmates. “Friends play many different roles and people with this kind of repertoire take their friendships very seriously,” observed Spencer and Pahl. “They tend to appreciate the particular qualities of different kinds of friendship.”
While social commentators sometimes dismiss the importance of relationships based on sociability and fun, Spencer and Pahl found that these relationships can be stress relievers, making important contributions to emotional resilience. As one of their research subjects noted, “Because life is so serious most of the time, . . . it is nice to meet people that you can relax with. . . . Nowadays everybody works so hard and it’s so fast, that sometimes you just need to get away from it and have a really good laugh together.”
This sentiment can actually claim empirical support, in the sense that persistently talking about a problem (rumination) has been linked by researchers to unhappiness and even depression, and while it can certainly help to share a problem with a friend, mulling over it incessantly has the opposite effect. In addition to fueling depression and impairing problem-solving abilities, rumination tends to wear down the compassion of one’s social network, driving away even the closest of friends. Clearly, considering this factor alone, it can be useful for a social support network to include some friends with whom troubles can be shared and others who might serve as distractions.
Indeed, when Spencer and Pahl compared the results of mental-health and well-being measures to the personal community structures of their subjects, they found some interesting patterns. Poor mental health scores were clustered among those with very small personal communities as well as those whose personal communities were fragile, whether due to family instability during childhood or simply through failure to nurture friendships. Spencer and Pahl attribute this mental health pattern to the fact that people with broader personal communities have a range of people to rely on for support. On the other hand, people who have “all their eggs in one basket” are likely to find their entire world rocked if their sole supportive relationship becomes unavailable.
Spencer and Pahl’s study is not simply one more proof that social relationships are essential to human health. One of its most important contributions to our understanding of social bonds is the fact that our connections are so richly diverse and our patterns of forming and maintaining them so individual that labels such as “introvert” or “extravert,” or claims that the Internet spells the death of social interaction, completely miss the point. As human beings, our need for social interaction is innate. Introvert, extravert or ambivert, everybody needs a variety of bonds with other people in order to be mentally, physically and emotionally healthy.
It would seem, then, that people who need people aren’t just the luckiest people in the world, or even just the happiest people. They’re the only people. They are all of us.