4 years ago by in Featured, Social Science, Social Science

shutterstock_40126648The friendship paradox is the phenomenon first observed by the sociologist Scott L. Feld in 1991 that most people have fewer friends than their friends have, on average. It can be explained as a form of sampling bias in which people with greater numbers of friends have an increased likelihood of being observed among one’s own friends. In contradiction to this, most people believe that they have more friends than their friends have.

The same observation can be applied more generally to social networks defined by other relations than friendship: for instance, most people’s sexual partners have (on the average) a greater number of sexual partners than they have.


In spite of its apparently paradoxical nature, the phenomenon is real, and can be explained as a consequence of the general mathematical properties of social networks. The mathematics behind this are directly related to the arithmetic-geometric mean inequality and the Cauchy-Schwartz inequality.

Formally, Feld assumes that a social network is represented by an undirected graph {{{1}}}, where the set V of vertices corresponds to the people in the social network, and the set E of edges corresponds to the friendship relation between pairs of people. That is, he assumes that friendship is a symmetric relation: if X is a friend of Y, then Y is a friend of X. He models the average number of friends of a person in the social network as the average of the degrees of the vertices in the graph. That is, if vertex v has d(v) edges touching it (representing a person who has d(v)friends), then the average number μ of friends of a random person in the graph is

\mu=\frac{\sum_{v\in V} d(v)}{|V|}=\frac{2|E|}{|V|}.

slideThe average number of friends that a typical friend has can be modeled by choosing, uniformly at random, an edge of the graph (representing a pair of friends) and an endpoint of that edge (one of the friends), and again calculating the degree of the selected endpoint. That is, mathematically, it is

\frac{\sum_{uv\in E} d(v)^2}{2|E|}=\mu + \frac{\sigma^2}{\mu},

where  {\sigma}^{2}  is the variance of the degrees in the graph. For a graph that has vertices of varying degrees (as is typical for social networks), both μ and  {\sigma}^{2}  are positive, which implies that the average degree of a friend is strictly greater than the average degree of a random node.

Another way of understanding how the first term came is as follows. For each friendship uv, a node u mentions that v is a friend and v has d(v) friends. There are d(v) such friends who mention this. Hence the square of d(v) term. We add this for all such friendships in the network from both the u’s and v’s perspective, which gives the numerator. The denominator is the number of total such friendships, which counts to total edges in the network twice (one from the u’s perspective and the other from the v’s).

After this analysis, Feld goes on to make some more qualitative assumptions about the statistical correlation between the number of friends that two friends have, based on theories of social networks such as assortative mixing, and he analyzes what these assumptions imply about the number of people whose friends have more friends than they do. Based on this analysis, he concludes that in real social networks, most people are likely to have fewer friends than the average of their friends’ numbers of friends. However, this conclusion is not a mathematical certainty; there exist undirected graphs (such as the graph formed by removing a single edge from a large complete graph) that are unlikely to arise as social networks but in which most vertices have higher degree than the average of their neighbors’ degrees.


People with more friends are more likely to be your friend in the first place; that is, they have a higher propensity to make friends in the first place. Another example deals with Twitter: The people a person follows almost certainly have more followers than they. This is because people are more likely to follow those who are popular than those who are not. Thus, over 98% of users are subject to the friendship paradox.


The analysis of the friendship paradox implies that the friends of randomly selected individuals are likely to have higher than average centrality. This observation has been used as a way to forecast and slow the course of epidemics, by using this random selection process to choose individuals to immunize or monitor for infection while avoiding the need for a complex computation of the centrality of all nodes in the network.
A PLoS One study found that those in the center of their social networks can detect flu outbreaks almost 2 weeks before traditional surveillance measures can. They found that using the Friendship paradox to analyze the health of central friends is “an ideal way to predict outbreaks, but detailed information doesn’t exist for most groups, and to produce it would be time-consuming and costly.”


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