A Dunbar moment

You have probably heard of Dunbar’s number. It’s all about the size of our brain and our relationship groups. To be exact, it’s about the size of our neocortex relative to the rest of our brain.

Our bigger brain allows us to maintain larger social relationship groups than other primates. But we still have our limits. Which is where Dunbar comes in. His research indicates that the average number of meaningful relationships that we can comfortably handle is 150 at any given time.

As you may know, the man behind the number is anthropologist and psychologist Robin Dunbar. His social brain hypothesis has been put to practical use by many: businesses, governments, even the military.

Dunbar’s number comes to my mind at unexpected times; whether I am discussing ways to ease refugees into their lives in a new country, or trying to explain my avoidance of social media (people tend to wonder).

So I decided to take a Dunbar moment.

Dunbar’s number breaks down from 150 to 50, 15 and 5 according to a specific formula. Basically the closer the relationship, the smaller the number.

We are talking averages here. The 150 might in real life be 100 for me and 200 for you. This would change our breakdown too.

Dunbar published his findings in 1992. As time has passed, people have challenged his hypothesis. Dunbar is adamant that the number remains 150 until something as revolutionary as language comes along.

When we taught ourselves to talk, we reset our cognitive limits. Something equally revolutionary may happen again, but social media is not that something if Dunbar is to be believed.

Others argue that Internet and social media will change the way we handle relationships and increase the Dunbar number.

Dunbar has qualified his number by saying that it refers to the amount of people with whom we have some kind of emotional bond irrespective of what they can do for us.

Some maintain that we can successfully juggle a significantly larger amount of relationships if we categorise them. They talk about relationship baskets, buckets, tags, you name it. No mention is made of how meaningful these relationships are.

Facebook is moving further and further away from Dunbar’s number. It’s becoming more about businesses, political agendas, and special interests, less about social relationships. The change is fundamental.

Users are changing their behaviour accordingly. They are creating multiple social media personas: public ones, semi-public ones related to their career and special interests, and private ones. All may overlap to a certain extent.

The public and semi-public personas are often heavily groomed; better selfs created for public use. This has very little to do with meaningful relationships as Dunbar defines them, or with the original Facebook concept.

I bought into Dunbar’s number easily when I first heard of it although it looked to me that the uses people made of his number did not always fit into his definitions.

The number and its breakdown made sense. My “job me” felt more comfortable in a 150, 50,15,5 environment. I preferred working with teams of 3-5 or 12-15 depending on the project. In major projects, the teams were broken down pretty much along the 50,15,5 rule.

When work was at its most hectic, I had less time for others. So at any given time, my meaningful relationships may well have maxed at 150.

A smaller, independent workplace, be it a company, division, or factory, allows you to build enough meaningful relationships to understand the workplace well and feel comfortable in it. As outside influence grows, the relationships become more complex. The more people, the more intrigues.

Dunbar’s number is one way of explaining why bigger conglomerates have difficulties realising cross-divisional strategies. It just becomes too complicated.

Somehow meaningful seems to equate with trust, at least in my mind. Dunbar says it slightly differently. He says that in order to form a genuine relationship we need to know who someone is and how he or she relates to us.

We all know that we can’t really know each other. We don’t even understand ourselves at times.

Can we learn to know, like, and trust more than 150 people enough to feel comfortable joining them for a drink uninvited if we happen to bump into them? This is one of the tests Dunbar suggests. Again, it’s all about averages. Maybe you can, most of us can’t.

Do we even want emotional bonds with more than 150 people? If the answer is no, the amount of networking tools we have available will not really matter.

As mentioned, Dunbar qualifies a meaningful relationship as one that is not about what the other person can do for us. According to research, however, people need to feel that they are getting as much out of a friendship as they are putting in. Friends you can choose, both the close ones and the casual ones.

To analyse my relationships I created a test that I dubbed the Discomfort Test (I know, I sometimes get carried away).

The people I was ready to voluntarily discomfort myself the most for were also the ones I considered my closest relationships. This was not surprising.

The surprise was that there was indeed a subtle element of reciprocity as far as friendships were concerned even though I never thought of it as such.

It was not about what my friends had, or would actually be called upon to do for me. It was more about the type of people they were. The people closest to me, relatives included, were all people I trusted and could turn to for support (emotional, practical, or both) in a tough spot.

Dunbar’s number, or rather its breakdown, explains the reason why I am not a fan of social media. It takes away quality time from the roughly 50 friends I consider close friends. I don’t want a post to replace a call, a personal email, a lunch or a dinner. I may be fighting a losing battle.

More interesting than my own situation, is the question how situations vary from one individual to another depending on what you are looking for in relationships, and how much time and effort you are willing to spend juggling them on social media.

Can you train your brain to handle a larger group of meaningful relationships? Probably, but if there is little want to do so, Dunbar’s number will remain unchallenged.

The obvious risk, when you are juggling hundreds or thousands of social relationships, is that you create a better self that people recognise as such and trust less.  As a result your relationships become less meaningful.

The Discomfort Test may not be the one for you, but take your time to figure out which of your relationships are important.

You might realise – before it is too late – that there are some really important people out there that you haven’t made enough time for lately.

Back to the refugees. I truly think governments should keep in mind Dunbar’s number when decisions regarding housing and integration programs for refugees are made.

There is a great word for integration in the Finnish language: “kotouttaminen”. It translates loosely to ensuring that a person feels at home. A good home is built on trust and meaningful relationships. It’s all about emotional bonds – and numbers.


One thought on “A Dunbar moment

  1. Anonymous

    150 meaningful persons seems an awful lot – many days my discomfort zone barely allows one person, namely my significant other…

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