WASHINGTON—Americans, who shocked pollsters in 1985 when they said they had only three close friends, today say they have just two. And the number who say they've no one to discuss important matters with has doubled to 1 in 4, according to a nationwide survey to be released Friday.
It found that men and women of every race, age and education level reported fewer intimate friends than the same survey turned up in 1985. Their remaining confidants were more likely to be members of their nuclear family than in 1985, according to the study, but intimacy within families was down, too. The findings are reported in the June issue of the American Sociological Review.
Weakening bonds of friendship, which other studies affirm, have far-reaching effects. Among them: fewer people to turn to for help in crises such as Hurricane Katrina, fewer watchdogs to deter neighborhood crime, fewer visitors for hospital patients and fewer participants in community groups. The decline, which was greatest in estimates of the number of friends outside the family, also puts added pressure on spouses, families and counselors.
"People are isolated in their own families," said Laurie Thorner, a therapist in Annapolis, Md., since the 1980s. "I definitely agree that there's less support for people."
Study co-author Lynn Smith-Lovin, a sociologist at Duke University in Durham, N.C., called the sharp declines startling, and added, "You don't usually expect major features of social life to change very much from year to year or even decade to decade."
One explanation for friendship's decline is that adults are working longer hours and socializing less. That includes women, who when homemakers tended to have strong community networks. In addition, commutes are longer, and TV viewing and computer use are up. Another factor, Smith-Lovin admitted, may have been confusion among some of those polled on how to count e-mail friendships.
As connections to neighbors and social clubs decline, Smith-Lovin said, "From a social point of view it means you've got more people isolated in a small network of people who are just like them."
She speculated that social isolation may have made Hurricane Katrina worse. "The people we saw sitting on roofs after Katrina hit were probably people without close ties to someone with a car to get them out," she said.
She's right, said Bob Howard, spokesman for the American Red Cross' Hurricane Relief Project.
"People that had friends and family were probably most likely to evacuate," he said.
Even before Katrina, Red Cross volunteering—an effort for which friends often are recruiters and in which friendships sustain membership—was way off, spokeswoman Marietta Basel said. It's down from 1.3 million volunteers in 1996 to 820,000 last year. It's a time problem, according to Basel. "People don't have time to volunteer in a registered fashion and agree to volunteer X number of hours a week."
Robert Putnam, the author of "Bowling Alone," the 2000 best-seller on declining American civic life, said his more recent research generally tracked the findings of Smith-Lovin and Miller McPherson, a sociologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
"We would actually think that the trends have leveled off a little bit" since 2000, but not reversed, said Putnam, who teaches public policy at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
People pay a price when bonds of friendship weaken, he continued. "Communities that have tighter social networks have lower crime and lower mortality and less corruption and more effective government and less tax evasion."
The Duke-Arizona research team's findings are based on questions that they added to one of the nation's classic attitude polls, the General Social Survey, which the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center has conducted every two years since 1972.
In the face-to-face survey, 1,467 people—a nationally representative sample—were asked to count and describe all the people with whom they'd discussed matters important to them in the previous six months.
The question asked in 2004 was the same as that asked in 1985, although the term "discussed" may have led some recent respondents to omit friendships sustained by e-mail, Smith-Lovin admitted.
"But if you need someone to pick up your kid from the day-care center because you're stuck at work, you can't e-mail someone in New York," she said.
To read the study online, go to www.asanet.org/galleries/default-file/June06ASRFeature.pdf
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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