More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Study: 25% of Americans have no one to confide in
June 23, 2006

Americans have a third fewer close friends and confidants than just two decades ago -- a sign that people may be living lonelier, more isolated lives than in the past.

In 1985, the average American had three people in whom to confide matters that were important to them, says a study in today's American Sociological Review. In 2004, that number dropped to two, and one in four had no close confidants at all.

"You usually don't see that kind of big social change in a couple of decades," says study co-author Lynn Smith-Lovin, professor of sociology at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

Close relationships are a safety net, she says. "Whether it's picking up a child or finding someone to help you out of the city in a hurricane, these are people we depend on."

Also, research has linked social isolation and loneliness to mental and physical illness.

The study finds fewer contacts are from clubs and neighbors; people are relying more on family, a phenomenon documented in the 2000 book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, a Harvard public policy professor.

The percentage of people who confide only in family increased from 57% to 80%, and the number who depend totally on a spouse is up from 5% to 9%, the study found. "If something happens to that spouse or partner, you may have lost your safety net," Smith-Lovin says.

The study is based on surveys of 1,531 people in 1985 and 1,467 in 2004, part of the General Social Survey by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

Not everyone sees such a dire picture. People still have other friends, sociologist Barry Wellman of the University of Toronto says. "We have a lot of ties that aren't super strong but are still pretty important."

Why people have fewer close friends is unclear, Putnam says. "This is a mystery like Murder on the Orient Express, in which there are multiple culprits."

The chief suspects: More people live in the suburbs and spend more time at work, Putnam says, leaving less time to socialize or join groups.

Also, people have more entertainment tools such as TV, iPods and computers, so they can stay home and tune out. Some new trends, such as online social networking, may help counter the effect, he says.


When you have been burned or let down as much as I have you tend to stop confiding in people and keep things to yourself.

This is not surprising to me at all!!

Daniel E.
The report does show that people are slightly more jaded regarding friendships than they used to be, with the most noticeable change being a 10% decrease in the perceived helpfulness of friendships:

Respondents in 2004 are somewhat less likely
than those in 1985 to report that they can trust
other people, think that they are fair (as opposed
to taking advantage), and think that they are
helpful (as opposed to looking out for themselves).
The changes in these variables, however,
are in the order of 2 percent (fair) to 9.6
percent (helpful)?again, small relative to the
drop that we see in core network size.

Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks Over Two Decades - June 2006 (pdf)

But, from my point of view, it's no wonder that some of them feel friendships aren't very helpful since they have less close friends to begin with due to changes in society, communication, etc. My favorite quote from the study:

The general image is one of an already densely connected, close, homogeneous set of ties slowly closing in on itself, becoming smaller, more tightly interconnected, more focused on the very strong bonds of the nuclear family
(spouses, partners, and parents).
"The chief suspects: More people live in the suburbs and spend more time at work, Putnam says, leaving less time to socialize or join groups."

I think a lot of people consider some of their collegues their "friends" but when the going gets tough most people can not rely on their collegues...also more people are working longer hours and when they are home they just want to relax and don't really feel like having dinner parties or what ever...also I think that since more and more people are driving fruther and fruther to work that takes say a 8-5 job and make it a 7-6 job or longer with driving...anyway I think this is an interesting article...makes me think about who I can really confide in and can count on through anything

Daniel E.
In Internet Age, People Have Fewer Confidantes, Study Finds
NOVEMBER 11, 2011

Despite technological advancement and a growing global community, Americans are reporting a decline in their number of close confidantes, Prof. Matthew Brashears, sociology, says in a recent study published in the American Sociological Review.

Brashears’ study compared the results of a study in 1985 to similarly-collected data in 2010. His results showed that the average “discussion network” — the number of people an individual can discuss “important issues” with — has decreased from three to two people, on average, over the last few decades.

Brashears said his findings, which garnered national media attention, surprised him. He said the results challenge previous conceptions that individual social networks grew with the advent of online social networking.

“We were skeptical of the dramatic change,” Brashears said.

He said that increased connectivity online does not translate into an increase in the number of close confidantes.

“In the Internet age, you can be friends on Facebook, but you’re not really friends unless you interact,” Brashears said. “[The Internet] doesn’t increase the number of close associates.” *

While Brashears has not conducted a study as to determine the cause of the decline, he speculated that people are more discerning about their closest confidantes than in 1985.

Prof. Keith Hampton, communication, University of Pennsylvania, worked with the*Pew Research Center and obtained similar results. He predicted that increasing economic prosperity may cause declines in close social ties.

“It’s surprising in general to see such large-scale social change,” Hampton said.

In his research, Hampton studied social networks in other countries and found that development and implementation of social institutions diminish the dependency on a social network.

Brashears said he does not believe shrinking social networks are a dire problem. In fact, he said, his findings indicate a historical trend toward smaller and less diverse social networks.

“It’s not the decline of Western civilization,” Brashears said. “There is no reason to freak out.”

Still, smaller social networks make people more vulnerable to upheaval, “because networks are getting smaller, any disruption can strip support,” Brashears added.

In addition to his findings about declining network size, Brashears discovered that American social networks are not necessarily increasing in diversity, even though Americans can now interact with people abroad via technology.

“There is no reason to contact a random person, unless you are brought together by a common interest,” he said.

With this in mind, he said networks tend to be homogeneous by interest yet more diverse in terms of geography.

“You trade one for the other,” he said.

Brashears’ most recent study, titled “Small networks and high isolation? A reexamination of American discussion networks,” reaffirmed similar results from a study conducted by Brashears and Prof. Miller McPherson, sociology, Duke University and University of Arizona, and Prof. Lynn Smith-Lovin, sociology, Duke University, in 2006. *

The original 2006 study was contested in a letter to the American Sociological Review by Prof. Claude Fischer, sociology, U.C. Berkeley, who claimed an error inspired the results. Brashears conducted the 2010 study to refute Fischer’s claims.

“To really settle things, you need new data because it is almost impossible to prove,” Brashears said.
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