If you are reading this post then chances are you already have many friends, some of them from school days, some from neighborhood and some from office/work. But, how many times we thought about the very process that resulted in our mutual friendship? Do we ever think what happened exactly that transformed our relationship of simple acquaintances into friendship? Do we remember when did the status of that person was changed in our mind? Some would say yes. But, in fact, we have very little knowledge about this actual process of converting acquaintances into friends.
The process of meeting a stranger and then successive meetings or other interactions with him/her which transforms our relationship is a complex one and we very seldom think about it using our conscious mind. The fact is we may not even know if someone is our friend or still a good acquaintance!
Social scientists struggled to find out the answer, the reason being - first, surveys are expensive and second, people are error prone when they try recalling their own behavior. If data can be available cheap and recorded, then it would solve this mystery. So they used cellphone usage data!
Researchers have used such data to map out people's social networks, utilizing the duration and frequency of calls between pairs of people as a measure of the intimacy of their relationship. Doing so has revealed patterns of people's contact with each other both in time and space, which is crucial for modeling everything from gossip to how flu viruses spread across populations.
But the question that arises is how accurately do call patterns reflect the intimacy of relationships? After all, so many times even very close friends rarely call each other, while some people who are talking kind call just about everyone (even if not a friend).
A team led by Nathan Eagle, an engineer at the MIT in Cambridge, gave mobile phones to 94 MIT students and faculty members. For 9 months, software on the phones kept track of the volunteers' location and logged all calls made between these phones. Over the same period, the researchers also gathered social data from the subjects in the traditional way, asking them whether the other subjects were friends, acquaintances, or strangers. Finally, the subjects rated their job satisfaction, which has been shown to strongly correlate with the number of workplace friendships.
Just by analyzing the calling patterns, the researchers could accurately label two people as friends or nonfriends more than 95% of the time. But the results, published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that the mobile phone data were better at predicting friendship than the subjects themselves. Thirty-two pairs of subjects switched from calling each other acquaintances to friends in the traditionally gathered survey data. These are most likely new relationships that formed during the course of the study, say the researchers, and they left a clear signal in the mobile phone data. Friends call each other far more often than acquaintances do when they are off-campus and during weekends. The pattern is so distinct that the researchers spotted budding friendships in the phone data months before the people themselves called themselves friends. This is the surprising thing and shows how complex our social behavior is!
Finally, the team compared people's self-reported job satisfaction with their networks of friendship at their workplaces. Because the mobile phones kept track of people's proximity to each other, the researchers had a clear measure of people's daily contact with friends at work, not only through calls but through physical proximity. As predicted, the more contact people had with friends at their workplace, the more highly they rated their job satisfaction. And conversely, the less face-to-face contact people had with friends at work, the less they said they enjoyed it.
Source of the study : ScienceNow Magazine and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The link to the study is given above.