Rich People Have Fewer International Friends

September 21, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Facebook connects billions of friends worldwide

This could give the lower class an advantage in a number of ways.

People from higher classes tend to stay within their own social bubbles, according to a new study that analyzed 57 billion friendships on Facebook. While the rich may be better positioned to travel and form relationships with people from other countries, the data showed that their friend networks mostly consist of domestic acquaintances.

These results align with a theory called the “restricting social class” hypothesis, which suggests that rich people have greater resources and thus depend less on others. Less of a need to rely on other people creates a greater tendency for the upper class to be less socially engaged, particularly with those from other socioeconomic groups than their own.

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The researchers from the department of psychology at the University of Cambridge conducted a local study and a global study, both of which supported the "restricting social class hypothesis." Impressively, the global study used a massive dataset of billions of Facebook friendships, allowing for a more comprehensive study than most.

The tendency of the upper class to stay in their own social bubbles could ultimately give the lower class a big advantage. “If you are not engaging internationally then you will miss out on that international resource — that flow of new ideas and information,” says Dr. Alexandre Spectre, the study’s co-author. Members of lower social classes may actually stand to benefit from a higher level of engagement in a highly international and globalized social world, the researchers say.

In the local study, the researchers worked with over 850 people in the United States and analyzed their Facebook networks. The results indicated that low-class participants had nearly 50 percent more international friends than high-class participants.

For the global study, Facebook provided the researchers with data on every friendship formed over the network in every country in the world at the national aggregate level in 2011. The dataset included over 57 billion friendships, and all data was kept anonymous.

“Previous research by others has highlighted the value of developing weak ties to people in distant social circles, because they offer access to resources not likely to be found in one’s immediate circle. I find it encouraging that low-social class people tend to have greater access to these resources on account of having more international friendship,” said study co-author Maurice Yearwood.

A radical facet of this study is that, 10 or so years ago, it would have been impossible. Big data and social media are revolutionizing the way researchers can analyze data. Spectre says we’re entering an era where researchers can start to ask the big questions and actually answer them in a way that was never feasible before.

Spectre commends Facebook for its “scientific spirit” and willingness to collaborate with his lab for research purposes — this is only the first output of ongoing research collaborations between the two. "Having the opportunity to work with companies like Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and Google should be something that's hugely exciting to the academic community," he said.

Since it was recently discovered that not even half of 100 retested psychology studies could reproduce the same results, analyzing more comprehensive sets of data could lead to more legitimate findings. If more influential companies like Facebook cultivate a scientific spirit, studies in the future could yield excitingly accurate results.

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