Breaking Pareto: Too Many Nice People to Waste Time on the Bad Ones

Sacha* was in first term of Year 7. No one from her old school came with her. She didn’t know who to hang out with but felt herself attracted to a group of confident and extroverted girls – they seemed to be good fun! This group all had previous connections to one another, and Sacha found herself to be the outsider. Some of the girls started to subtly tease or exclude her. It seemed that the harder Sacha tried to fit in, the less friendly they all became.

The Pareto Principle

“For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” Matthew 25:29

Nineteenth Century Italian economist and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto studied land ownership in Italy. He found that 80% of all land was owned by the fortunate 20% of the population. The majority of people (80% of them) however owned a mere 20% of the land. This 80/20 distribution has come to be called the Pareto Principle.

The Pareto Principle has applications in many areas, from wealth to science paper references.

What can a rule about 19th century Italian land ownership tell us about friendship?

Popularity vs Friendship

A major error people make about social life is to confuse friendship and popularity. Popularity is not the same things as having a lot of friends. Popularity is about social desirability.

Social desirability is a form of status. When we enter a new social environment, we consciously or subconsciously register who the most socially desirable people are, and we feel attracted to them.

Some personal attributes can influence social desirability, such as physical attractiveness, stylish clothing or an extroverted personality. However, we mainly ascertain a person’s social desirability by the number of “friends” that they have. As the Bible (and Billie Holiday) says: Them that’s got shall get!

As I’ve written previously – status can never be shared equally amongst all people. Status is a ranking system. There is only one Number 1, one Number 2 and so on. Popularity is a ranking system too. Someone has to be first and someone has to be last.

With popularity, there are winners and loser. It is a harsh and unforgiving system!

But, as contradictory as it seems, a person can be socially undesirable and yet have many friends.

Don’t Waste Time on the Bad Ones

It is natural when we are in new social environments to seek out friendship. Unconsciously, we’ll be drawn to socially desirable people as friends. These people could be nice, but often they are not. They are often not nice because popular people have plenty of social options, so any new “friend” is of relatively little value to them. We feel it when we are of low value to someone else, and it does not feel good.

Seeking popularity can be an exercise in suffering. Most people (obviously) are in the 80% of the popularity pie. Tragically, most people are yearning for membership to the 20% group. The 20% who don’t really want them, and definitely don’t need them.

Spend Time with the Good Ones

Luckily, popularity is not the same thing as friendship. We can always make friends, no matter where we sit on the social desirability pyramid.

The 80% are easier targets for friendship than the 20%. They have lower social desirability, and therefore fewer social opportunities. The 80% value each new potential friend much more highly than the 20%. They are more open to growing their friendship circle.

So how can we take advantage of this to build friendships? There are several practical tips that come out of knowledge of the Pareto Principle:

  1. If you are in the 80%, don’t waste time trying to force your way into the 20%. The 20% don’t need you and you will feel unneeded amongst them.
  2. If you are in the 20%, don’t confuse social desirability with friendship. Becoming popular will not necessarily bring the usual benefits of friendship like connection and acceptance. The higher you rise on the popularity pyramid, the more competitive it becomes. It can be lonely up there.
  3. If you are seeking friendship, it’s better to be the cool person in an uncool group than the least cool member of the cool group.
  4. Having one good friend will attract other friends. Having two friends will attract yet more. Them that’s got shall get…
  5. Getting to know a lot of people from a wide range of groups will boost overall popularity. But not necessarily build friendships.

Sacha eventually let go of trying to be the popular one and moved away from her “cool” friends. She made a close friendship with a less popular girl who introduced Sacha to her group. Sacha started to get to know some girls that she had previously ignored – all of whom turned out to be friendlier than members of the cool group. Paradoxically, by letting go of trying to be cool, Sacha actually gained a measure of popularity. The popular girls who previously rejected and mocked her, actually started to say “hi” to her and sometimes sit with her in class.

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