The Average American Knows How Many People?

The Average American Knows How Many People? Andrew Gelman writes in the NY Times:

The average American knows about 600 people. How do we know this? Researchers led by my Columbia colleague Tian Zheng posed a series of questions to a representative sample of 1,500 Americans: How many people do you know named Kevin? How many named Karen? How many named Shawn or Sean, Brenda, Keith or Rachel?

After adjusting for various factors (for example, the names are not evenly distributed in age across the population), we determined that participants knew an average of 8.4 people with those names. Social Security records suggest that 1.4 percent of the population has one of the names, and 8.4 divided by 1.4 percent is 600 people.

Using this clever method of estimating social networks can be tricky. Indeed, the method’s inventors, H. Russell Bernard and Peter Killworth, estimated from an earlier survey that the average American knew only 290 people.

Why was their estimate so low? Perhaps because the names they used were common ones, like Michael and Robert; research shows that people with common names are harder to recall than those with slightly more exotic ones, like Sean and Rachel.

Our team also estimates that most Americans know just 10 to 25 people well enough to say they trust them.

Based on not much of anything, the notion that the average American knows 600 people seems wildly exaggerated. Guess it depends on what one means by “know”. “Know of”, yes, “know”, in any real sense, no.

image_pdfimage_print

Leave a Comment: