Americans' circle of close confidants has shrunk dramatically in the past two decades and the number of people who say they have no one with whom to discuss important matters has more than doubled, according to a new study by sociologists at Duke University and the University of Arizona. "The evidence shows that Americans have fewer confidants and those ties are also more family-based than they used to be," said Lynn Smith-Lovin, Robert L. Wilson Professor of Sociology at Duke University and one of the study's authors. "This change indicates something that's not good for our society. Ties with a close network of people create a safety net. These ties also lead to civic engagement and local political action."
The study compared data from 1985 and 2004 and found that the number of people with whom Americans can discuss matters important to them dropped by nearly one-third, from 2.94 people in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004.
Researchers also found that the number of people who said they had no one with whom to discuss such matters more than doubled, to nearly 25 percent. The survey found that both family and non-family connections dropped, with the greatest loss in non-family connections.
The study also finds that:
- The trend toward social isolation mirrors other class divides: Non-whites and people with less education tend to have smaller networks than white Americans and the highly educated.
- Racial diversity among people's networks has increased. The percentage of people who count at least one person of another race in their close network has gone up from about 9 percent to more than 15 percent.
- The percentage of people who talk only to family members about important matters increased from about 57 percent to about 80 percent, while the number of people who depend totally on their spouse has increased from about 5 percent to about 9 percent.
"We were surprised to see such a large change. We remain cautious--perhaps even skeptical--of its size. It's unusual to see very large social changes like this that aren't tied to some type of demographic shift in the population," said Miller McPherson, a research professor of sociology at Duke and professor of sociology at the University of Arizona. "But even if the change is exaggerated for some reason, given our analyses of the highest quality, nationally representative data available, we are confident there is a trend toward smaller, closer social networks more centered on spouses and partners."
The researchers also found that Americans are stratified according to education and race when it comes to these social networks. African Americans and other non-white Americans have smaller networks of confidants than white Americans. African-American men older than 60 have seen the biggest decline, from 3.6 people in 1985 to 1.8 in 2004.
"People who are disadvantaged in various ways are especially likely to have smaller, more family-based networks," Smith-Lovin said.
Why such a large change?
While this study did not uncover the reasons behind this social change, the researchers offer some ideas based on other research.
One possibility is that people interpreted the questions differently in 2004 than they did in 1985. What people define as "important" might have changed, or people might not equivalue emailing or instant messaging with "discussing."
The researchers also suggest that changes in work and the geographical scattering of families may foster a broader, shallower network of ties, rather than the close bonds measured by this study.
Research also shows a decline in the number of groups that people belong to and the amount of time they spend with these organizations. Members of families spend more time at work and have less time to spend on activities outside the home that might lead to close relationships.
And new technology, while allowing people to connect over larger distances, might diminish the need for face-to-face visits with friends, family or neighbors, the study said.
"Group membership is very important in creating ties to people outside the family," Smith-Lovin said. "But those ties may be more superficial now. If people spend less time in groups, they may talk to people, but just about matters that involve the club, and they may be less likely to share personal troubles or triumphs with them."