The more money you have, generally speaking, the less socially engaged you’re likely to be. Over the years, researchers have offered a few different potential explanations for the pattern: For one thing, wealthier people can afford to pay for certain things that less affluent people rely on their networks to attain, like hiring a babysitter versus asking the neighbors to watch the kids. And social support serves as a buffer against the emotional and logistical difficulties of tough financial situations. A strong network can ease the persistent stress of poverty; it can also come in handy when, say, someone’s car breaks down, and they need a ride to work to avoid losing out on a day’s pay.
It makes sense, then, that wealthier people spend more of their free time alone, as a recent study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science reported. But when they do spend time with other people, the study found, their social lives typically look pretty different than those of people with lower incomes — and that spending time with friends may be something of a luxury, more accessible to the affluent than the poor.
The study authors pulled their data from two nationally representative samples: the 2012 General Social Survey, which collected information from roughly 30,000 people, and the American Time Use Survey, which had around 89,000 participants. The researchers controlled for other factors that can influence a person’s social life, including age, gender, hours worked over the past week, family size; they also factored in household size (people with lower incomes may live with family members out of financial necessity) and city size (people in rural areas tend to spend more time with their family members).
When they crunched the numbers, the researchers found a clear link between wealth and with whom people chose to spend their free time: Compared to people at the low end of the income spectrum, wealthier people spent an average of ten more minutes alone on a given day, 22 more minutes with friends, and 26 fewer minutes with family members.
As a chunk of a 24-hour day, 22 minutes doesn’t seem like a ton of time —but over the course of weeks and months and years, those minutes pile up, strengthening some ties at the expense of others. “Wealthier people may be less civically engaged with their neighborhood communities and more civically engaged with self-selected communities such as private schools or political organizations,” study co-author Emily Bianchi, a professor at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, told The Atlantic.
Conversely, the researchers hypothesized, membership in a “self-selected community” may be more difficult to sustain for poorer people, who need more from their social ties:
One possibility is that the greater need for material and emotional support among the poor increases investment in social relationships but also strains these relationships. Consequently, people with lower incomes may spend more time with other people but may have less fulfilling relationships. Similarly, if people are more likely to receive emotional rather than instrumental support from friends, then it is possible that people with higher incomes have better quality relationships, even if they spend less time with others.
Poverty, in other words, may weaken certain types of relationships, even as it makes social support that much more vital. Maybe money can’t buy friendship, but it certainly makes it easier.