Health's psychology editor weighs in on what the research really means.

By Chelsey Hamilton
Updated December 18, 2019

Our friends are so important, it's hard to picture life without them. But imagine if you found out that half of your "friends" aren’t really, truly your pals? That's what a study published in the journal PLOS ONE seems to suggest: Researchers at Tel-Aviv University surveyed students in the U.S., Europe, and Israel about their friendships with one another, and discovered that only 50% of the people they named as friends considered the relationship mutual. Ouch.

But before you take the news to heart, we asked Health’s contributing psychology editor, Gail Saltz, MD, to weigh in on the study. The trouble with that statistic, she says, is that friendship doesn't have a strict definition. “People can define it differently based on family origins, the way they were raised, or their parents’ friendships.”

Age plays a role, too. A 20-year-old may consider all her Facebook friends to be “friends,” for example, whereas a 50-year-old may only count the people who have proven their loyalty over the course of many years, Dr, Saltz explains.

So the survey findings aren't terribly surprising, she says. Unless two people have talked openly about the state of their relationship, they may respond differently when asked to define it.

But if you're already wondering who among your squad may not be the real deal, here's a potential hint: The researchers report that if you and the pal in question share many mutual friends, it's more likely your friendship is reciprocal.

One the other hand, if the person in question has many more friends than you, it's less likely she considers you a bosom buddy. Dr. Saltz says she can see why that finding might be true: People who are extroverts, with many social connections, may only consider the members of their inner circle their confidants, she explains. But that doesn't mean your should discount your favorite social butterfly. Some extroverts operate differently, says Dr. Saltz, and feel they have the emotional capacity for many friends.

Got an introvert for a bestie? That could be a good sign, according to Dr. Saltz. In her experience as a practitioner, people who are more selective about their friendships tend to value the people they let in as especially meaningful and important. In other words, it's likely you are your pal are just as tight as you think.