Simon Fowler's Blog

Snapshot of American Relational Life

Posted by Simon on February 9, 2012

While considering Americas relational life recently I pulled together the following facts. I wonder what you make of them? If you see a problem, what do you think the essence of the problem is?

Note: of course it’s easy to cherry pick facts or extract them from context to make a point. And I always have questions about research methods and controls and correlation/causation confusion. But on the face of it, the situation looks pretty grim.

Americans have too few relationships About one in four Americans has no one with whom to talk about weighty matters, and nearly half of the population is one close friend or family member away from being socially isolated. (National Conference on Citizenship

Americans have too many relationships The average American has 634 ties in their overall network, and technology users have bigger networks.

Note: in case you wondered if there’s a limit consider “Dunbar’s Number”: according to Robin Dunbar, the size of our neocortex — the part of the brain used for conscious thought and language — limits us to managing social circles of around 150 friends no matter how sociable we are.

Lenders and borrowers are further apart:

  • geographical distance: local lending institutions no longer make a significant proportion of the loans that are originated.
  • transactional distance: there little direct contact; instead intermediaries such as mortgage brokers, appraisers, insurers, and closing officers, separate the principals.
  • financial distance: many borrowers have no equity (or negative equity) in their homes, and due to the securitization of loans through the secondary mortgage market, few originating lenders retain a stake in the loans they create.

From “The Structural Causes of Mortgage Fraud” James Charles Smith, University of Georgia Law School

More Americans are incarcerated
Adult Correction Populations
Bureau of Justice Statistics

Americans are having fewer encounters (over last quarter of 20th Century)

  • 58% drop attending club meetings
  • 43% drop family dinners
  • 35% drop having friends over
  • 10% more people bowling, but 40% fewer bowling leagues

Couples are committing to each other less, and staying committed less.

  • Since 1970 the number of Americans living together outside of marriage has increased more than 1,000 percent, with such couples now making up about 10% of all couples” (NMP Cohabitation Report 2008)
  • 20% of couples who married in 1950 ended up divorced, about 50% of couples who married in 1970 did. (NMP, “Evolution of Divorce” Wilcox 2009)
  • Cohabiting couples have a significantly higher dissolution rate than married couples. One recent study found that “children born to cohabiting versus married parents have over five times the risk of experiencing their parents’ separation.” (NMP Cohabitation Report 2008)

4 Responses to “Snapshot of American Relational Life”

  1. David said

    Good snapshot of these disconcerting trends. I take it you are implying a relationship between the large numbers we now have in our overall networks and the decline in close friendships? I can see the logic: if we’re spread too thin, it’s hard to have deep relationships. However, data I’ve seen suggest those more active with online social networks are also more likely to be active in the community. It would be interesting to read more about the relationship between these two categories of relationships.

    • Simon said

      Thanks for your comment, David!
      Yes, I’ve also seen, and intuitively agree with, the data that correlates higher social activity online and offline. I think it’s a low number though … single to double digits in terms of number of friends with high social activity – and I think its based somewhat on photographs uploaded and tagged.

      As to the correlation between the number of people in a network and the depth of relationship, I think we need a few more data points. One might assume from the two data points above that the more people we know the less depth we have (or greater isolation). But it could start low (no friends, highly isolated), then rise (small number of friends, greater depth), then fall (too many friends, highly isolated, or shallow friendships). But at all of these intersections the question has to be asked of each friendship – HOW and HOW OFTEN do they interact? That’s Directness, Continuity and Multiplexity in Relational Proximity terms. That’s where one needs to think in the z axis, or in circles; Out of 600 ‘connections’, 3 may be very close, with lots of time spent with them – online, offline, phone, text, letter, webcam, then another 10-15 pretty close but less time; then another 500-600 who are more distant. What makes a significant difference is the time and manner of our interactions, not the sheer numbers of people. I think those graphs will be my next post!
      Thanks for stimulating my further thinking.

  2. Dana Lindaman said


    An odd but entertaining assortment of stats that seem to suggest we’re less connected, which is I guess your point. It reminds me of an article I read recently about technology in the classroom. A university professor from Kansas State, who is a bit advocate for all sorts of technology in the classroom, is having second thoughts after visiting the lecture hall (the lecture format, if you don’t know, is the pariah du jour) of a very successful old school professor. What this guy realized is that it’s not the technology that keeps students engaged, it’s the relationship they establish with their professor. This guy could find the wavelength of his physics students and adjust his approach on the fly to respond to where they were at. Did they understand that last point? Can I move on? Are they interested? What he found was that the relationship he established with his students was far more important to their success than the simple manner in which he delivered the material. So technology can meet relational needs in some cases (I now give video feedback on student papers using Jing because it’s much more personable) but it can’t replace the human interaction in the classroom.

    If you’re interested:

    • Simon said

      Great, great comment Dana, thanks! I love that you use Jing that way; that’s exactly how tech can be used FOR relationships. i’ve been trying to get our sales people to send in their RFP responses that way.
      Like so many things, we can use human artifacts in constructive or destructive ways. And what makes them one or the other is an intersection of how, why, when (how often or for how long) and with whom. A post I wrote last year indicated that productive teams have a rhythm and a changing dynamic to how they interact and choose face to face, email, phone at different points in the cycle. They do that well because they have a clear understanding about the purpose of their relationships. But for them, as with your professor, it’s not all or nothing; it is about putting relationships first in the context of what you’re trying to do.
      Anyway, going off point now.
      More related to your point, did you see that Jonah Lehrer article in the New Yorker recently. One aspect of the study showed that the highest quality research (measured by number of subsequent research) came from those who worked in close physical proximity.

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