A new social connection tool helps us invest in our relationships

Thursday 30 May 2019

People drinking coffee.

Through the social connections tool, people can learn to understand and enrich their relationship circles.

In summary

  • Social connection tool is helping people better invest in their relationships
  • Developed as part of a partnership between the Australian Red Cross and Swinburne
  • Guided by the idea that humans can only maintain stable social relationships with a limited number of people

A social connection tool designed by Swinburne researchers is helping people better invest in their relationships.   

As part of a partnership between the Australian Red Cross and Swinburne, the tool was designed by Swinburne researcher Dr Arezou Soltani Panah and is based on Robin Dunbar’s theory of social connectedness – the idea that humans can only maintain stable social relationships with a limited number of people.

“Through this partnership, I’m hoping to understand what a modern healthy, connected person or community really looks like,” says Ms Ebony Gaylor, head of Red Cross’ Community Mobilisation team.

Using the tool, people can place partners, family, friends, neighbours and even pets in one of numerous circles, with themselves at the centre. The innermost circles are populated with their closest relationships, perhaps five to ten people. The outermost circle may contain ten times that number of more distant relationships.

Although Dunbar’s theory suggests how many connections are ideal in each circle, practice shows that it varies for individuals and over different life stages. Some people choose to have a smaller number of people in their groups, and are happy with that choice. It’s the discrepancy between the number and quality of the relationships you have and the number you would like to have that leads to unhappiness and isolation.

Not just a numbers game

“It’s a way of talking to people about their social connections like you would talk about their financial planning,” says project leader, Professor Jane Farmer. She says it enables people to see what relationship resources they have and how to invest in them to meet their emotional needs.

“It de-emotionalises things that can be quite emotional. The whole point, of the tool is to acknowledge your social connections as a set of resources that are really useful to you as a human being.”

At present, Ms Panah and her fellow researchers are conducting interviews to ensure the tool accurately reflects people’s experiences.

One of the researchers, Dr Natalie Jovanovski, is aware that the process of exploring the health of your social connections might be distressing for vulnerable people, and so the team is focusing on ways to ensure that it’s a positive and helpful experience. Generally, the research team feels the social connection tool is best used in collaboration with a health professional.

“The feedback that we received consistently from people is that it's really wonderful to have someone sitting next to them while they're doing the tool,” says Dr Jovanovski. “They can reflect on the things that they're putting down rather than having it just as this internal process.”

Making lifelong connections

“One woman interviewed talked a lot about how her husband had introduced her to many of the people she was including in the circles. However, she hadn't put her husband into any of the circles,” says Dr Jovanovski.

“He’d passed away several years ago, but he’d made sure she was connected to all these people so she wouldn’t be lonely. Despite the fact that he was no longer in her social connections, he was still very much there. She could positively reflect on his influence, rather than just reflect on losing him.”

The tool can also include suggestions on how users might improve their social connections, perhaps through joining organisations or interest groups. This list of suggestions is what is known as ‘social prescribing’.

“There's this common human thread of we need to feel connected to something greater than ourselves,” says Ms Gaylor. “That connection is very different now than it was 50 years ago, but evidence is showing there’s a huge value in connecting digitally.”

Through the social connections tool, people can learn to understand and enrich their relationship circles.

Find out how Swinburne is combining technology and humanity to explore intelligent, citizen-engaged solutions to complex social problems.