Interpersonal relationships are important across the lifespan, but friendships tend to dwindle in later adulthood. So, what factors can predict having a large social network late in life? A study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that extraversion and agreeableness could be the key.
Social relationships are integral parts of human life. Larger social networks have been linked with a plethora of positive physical and mental health benefits, including increased happiness and life satisfaction, and decreased mortality risk and sleep issues. Social networks often experience changes overtime, with some research pointing to a trend of decreased social relationships in later life and some suggesting a lack of linear trajectory.
This study sought to expand the body of research on interpersonal relationships later in life and explore how traits such as extraversion, agreeableness, and communication can contribute to these social networks.
To conduct the study, the researchers used data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), a nationally representative cohort survey of adults. They performed two types of analyses: a cross-sectional single-wave analysis and a first-last change analysis. The cross-sectional analysis examined the relationship between socio-communicative traits and social network size at one point in time. The first-last change analysis looked at how socio-communicative traits predict changes in network size over a 14-year period, from Wave 1 to Wave 8 of ELSA.
Data from 5,202 participants 50 years of age or older were included in the cross-sectional analysis. Additionally, 1,511 participants 50 years old or older were included in the first-last analysis.
Participants completed measures on social network size, friend network size, family network size, extraversion, agreeableness, and verbal communication. Sociodemographic factors, such as age gender relationship status and health, were included in the models as well.
The results showed that socio-communicative traits were able to predict social network size in later adulthood. In other words, people who are more outgoing (extraverted) and kind (agreeable) tend to have larger social networks. This means they have more friends, family members, and people they feel close to in their lives. These findings remained true even after considering other factors like age, gender, and general health. The best predictor was extraversion, followed by agreeableness.
Verbal communication skills were not significantly related to social relationships. Extraversion was more important for social networks of friends than it was for social networks of family.
Sociodemographic factors also played a key role, with females having larger family networks than males. Additionally, being single was linked with stronger friend networks and weaker family networks. The first-last analysis revealed that socio-communicative traits were poor predictors of how social networks change over time in late adulthood, suggesting that traits that predict social relationships do not necessary predict changes in social relationships.
This study took much needed steps into better understanding social networks in later life. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that the data available only measured the inner layers of social networks, when outer layers of social networks can also be significant to the happiness and wellbeing of individuals. Additionally, the use of self-report data is vulnerable to bias.
“Network size has been found to be a protective factor in health, well-being, and cognition,” the researchers concluded. “It is vital, therefore, to understand the factors that predict network size. In this study, we found that extraversion and agreeableness predict older adults’ social network sizes, overall, and at the family and friend network level… However, socio-communicative traits were not protective against network size change. This study illustrates the importance of considering individual differences in social network research.”
The study, “Personality Traits Predict Social Network Size in Older Adults“, was authored by Jasmine Rollings, Jérôme Micheletta, Darren Van Laar, and Bridget M. Waller.