Cookies on this website

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Accept all cookies' we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you won't see this message again. If you click 'Reject all non-essential cookies' only necessary cookies providing core functionality such as security, network management, and accessibility will be enabled. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

Psychological studies of relationships tend to focus on specific types of close personal relationships (romantic, parent-offspring, friendship) and examine characteristics of both the individuals and the dyad. This paper looks more broadly at the wider range of relationships that constitute an individual's personal social world. Recent work on the composition of personal social networks suggests that they consist of a series of layers that differ in the quality and quantity of relationships involved. Each layer increases relationship numbers by an approximate multiple of 3 (5-15-50-150) but decreasing levels of intimacy (strong, medium, and weak ties) and frequency of interaction. To account for these regularities, we draw on both social and evolutionary psychology to argue that relationships at different layers serve different functions and have different cost-benefit profiles. At each layer, the benefits are asymptotic but the costs of maintaining a relationship at that level (most obviously, the time that has to be invested in servicing it) are roughly linear with the number of relationships. The trade-off between costs and benefits at a given level, and across the different types of demands and resources typical of different levels, gives rise to a distribution of social effort that generates and maintains a hierarchy of layered sets of relationships within social networks. We suggest that, psychologically, these trade-offs are related to the level of trust in a relationship, and that this is itself a function of the time invested in the relationship.

Original publication




Journal article


Br J Psychol

Publication Date





149 - 168


Biological Evolution, Brain, Cognition, Emotions, Family Relations, Friends, Group Processes, Humans, Interpersonal Relations, Object Attachment, Social Support, Trust