Newly published analyses of a 2004 survey indicate that Americans’ social safety net is shrinking. On average, the 1,467 respondents listed only two people with whom they discuss important matters. In 1985 a similar mix of volunteers answering a comparable large survey reported an average of three confidants.

Also surprising: the most frequently reported number of confidants was zero, rather than three in 1985. Principal investigator Lynn Smith-Lovin, professor of sociology at Duke University, speculates that recent increases in time spent at work and frequent changes of residency could explain this striking change.

Other differences include shifts in the way individuals select whom to trust. More Americans today confide exclusively in relatives, especially spouses, as opposed to associates from social organizations or work, who were cited much more often in the previous results. And yet people with higher levels of secondary education tend to confide more in acquaintances outside the family; Smith-Lovin attributes this phenomenon to the tendency of highly educated people to have larger discussion networks. She and her colleagues are now reinterviewing participants to try to better explain these and other apparent trends.