We prefer pairs

A new study by Peperkorn et al. (2020) shows that as humans, we prefer social contact in pairs. What does this mean and what are the reasons for this? 

Social behavior in small groups 

Humans are a very social animal species. We spend a lot of time with others, we collaborate and compete, we help others and are helped, we influence and are influenced. The size of the group of people we interact with has some interesting effects. Recently we have seen several times how people in a crowd can indulge in extreme behavior. Research has shown that in smaller groups we are less likely to free ride, are more likely to trust others in the group, feel more responsible and are more likely to help others. 

Most often in pairs 

Peperkorn et al. conducted four survey studies and one experiential sample (total N = 4398) that provide evidence for the overrepresentation of pairs in everyday life. Compared to larger group sizes, pairs are most common in a wide variety of activities (e.g. conversations, projects, holidays, movies, sports, bars). This is the case for past activities as well as for current and future activities. These results are found with three different methodological approaches (retrospective reports, real-time data collection and preferred measures) in both the United States and The Netherlands. 

Four explanations 

The authors list four mechanisms that may help explain this finding: 
  1. Reciprocity: it is eminently possible to build up trust and reciprocity in pairs. Reliable and collaborative behavior is much easier to recognize unambiguously in pairs than in larger groups. This means that reciprocity takes place fastest in pairs. 
  2. Coordination: the better people know each other and the smaller the number of connections in a group, the lower the coordination burden. Coordinating activities is therefore easier in pairs than in larger groups. 
  3. Social Exclusion: As soon as groups become larger than two, the fear of social exclusion can arise. In pairs, excluding the other means you end up alone, which is a social burden. Exclusion is therefore much less likely for pairs. 
  4. Reproduction: An evolutionary explanation is that reproduction and (usually) rearing takes place in pairs. 


Do you recognize the findings of these authors? I personally find them recognizable. It may be interesting to consider how you can use these findings in your life. A small example could be to divide activities a little more into activities for pairs during meetings and group gatherings. Another example is to increasingly assign tasks and functions not to one person but to two people. Maybe it could even be a good idea to place leadership of departments (organizations, countries?) not in the hands of one person but of two people.