Dunbar had a number.

According to Robin Dunbar, an Oxford anthropologist, there is a limited number of people we as humans, are able to maintain stable relationships with… and that number is somewhere around 150. Say hello to Dunbar’s Number. More specifically, the idea is that within this limit, which is actually 148, we are able to know everyone and understand interpersonal dynamics and such. Beyond this, much more structure, more rules and enforced norms must exist to maintain functionality. This seems to be consistent among most animals or at least primates, according to primatologists. There just seems to be only so many people we can manage to engage with in any meaningful way.

WTF? 150 people we have meaningful relationships with? Let’s take a moment and count. Okay, what did you come up with? Yeah, I got stuck on what meaningful meant too.

Honestly, the notion of limits for successful social function cannot really be much of surprise for anyone. Everyone has experienced the stress that comes with trying to facilitate large groups of people seamlessly. If you have not, you are weird and lucky and should read about some groups like the Oneida’s, the Brook Farm or New Harmony. All three of these efforts at utopian society emerged from the Second Great Awakening in the North Eastern US. All three had a specific take on utopia. And all three failed within relatively short time periods, not long after exceeding the Dunbar limit.  Coincidence? [Do we even want to mention the Reverend Jim Jones and the PTAP (People’s Temple Agricultural Project)?]

The Oneida’s founded by John H. Noyes in 1848 were practitioners of communalism and complex marriage. So, everything was shared and everyone was married to everyone. Swell. Amazingly, the group lasted longer than most of their contemporaries (around 30 years), but did eventually dissolve (ironically – or not – becoming the huge silverware company of the same name.) Whether the fact that they superseded Dunbar’s number (they had around 300 members at the later stages) or the fact that the very complex hierarchy required to maintain a ‘free society’ eventually killed it is anyone’s guess. My money is on the complex marriage issue. Regardless of the cause of their demise, the fact that the struggles began when they exceeded Dunbar’s number is significant. I think.

George Ripley’s (believe it or not!) Brook Farm began in 1841 with fewer than twenty members. The Transcendental group had legit goals: individual freedom and humane relationships. They actually had some cool ideas, particularly regarding education that I will not go into here. Suffice it to say that the decline of the group, though ultimately to do with financial collapse, began with the implementation of a whole new structure based on Charles Fourier’s utopian socialist theory. The new rules and financial struggles led to dissent among the group. The group was around 200 when it finally folded in 1847. When you read about the issues they were dealing with towards the end, much has to do with people feeling like things weren’t fair, and certain people were receiving certain privileges, which bugged them because they didn’t feel connected to, or responsible for, those people anymore, they had entered into competition with them. And exceeded Dunbar’s number. Interesting.

Robert Owen’s New Harmony lasted four years. Basically, they fought all the time because, while each was interested in the ideas of utopian living, (who wouldn’t be?) they had no central belief or ideology that connected them in any way. They completely lacked cohesion. And this community was always too big – at least according to the Dunbar hypothesis. It was a town for all intents and purposes and as such, cohesion was extremely problematic (imagine getting along with everyone in your town and genuinely caring about everyone’s circumstances… the idea of it exhausts me and I can count the number of people in my village…) The very rational ideas on which Owen tried to base the community were at odds with what seems to be the nature of communal living – emotional cohesion and connectivity.

When I teach economic theories to my tenth graders and we get to communism, without telling them, I begin to grade them in a communist way. Basically, they all turn in their assignments (or those who did the assignments turn them in) and I grade them as I normally would. I write the score on the paper, then I add up the total number of earned points, then divide it by the total number of students on the roster. That becomes their “grade.” I put both scores on the papers and every student listed in the class gets the same grade. They become irate after this happens maybe twice. “It’s not fair!” They howl. “Why does —– get points? He never does anything!” They protest. I explain that the thing is they are a class, a group of thirty people who know each other and should want to help everyone succeed. They pause for about a millisecond before the barrage of complaints resumes.

Of course, the mean scores steadily decline over a period of a week or so, helped along by my role as the corrupt state taking points out of the average (you know, a little somp’in somp’in for my efforts) and they never even take the time to check the math to work out what is going on, they just moan. I probably would too – organizing against the man can be such a hassle. They get pissed at each other, and me, but indirectly – their ire is always peer oriented, and rather than encouraging the non-producers to produce, the producers just spend all their time telling me that it is not fair. These are groups of kids who know each other and in general would do a lot for each other, but here they do not. And they are far below the Dunbar limit.

This brings another element into Dunbar’s equation, which is that the number of people we successfully engage with works better if it is somewhat self-selected, at least in so much as people choose to belong there. The problem in the classroom example above is that those kids don’t necessarily choose the ones with whom they must ally. Therefore, successful maintenance of our relationships depends on the number, and the composition of our friend groups. This also seems to hold in the workplace as well, evidenced most convincingly by Gore-Tex (W.L. Gore & Associates) and extrapolated by Malcolm Gladwell in the ideas in The Tipping Point. The basic premise (and in my opinion the major oversight in Marxist theory) is that people are more responsive to peer pressure, but really only from those they care about and are truly only vested in others that have personal relevance to them, an extension of the Law of Self-Interest. It is a contradiction of Christian ethics and an endorsement of Hobbesian ideas I know, but I think it is correct.

All of this is on my mind because of the situation surrounding the emergence of the internet community concept that has grown out of the Myspace, Facebook, Twitter phenomena. I have been considering the dilemma of making and remaking friends via interent social networks for a while. And I have recently been considering not only the quantity and quality of these relationships… but the inherent nature of them. I began culling people (how awful does that sound!) from my friend list on Myspace and Facebook a while ago because I saw no point to having people on there who I did not communicate with. But then I was perplexed, why delete, they are ‘free friends’ – no effort is required like in the real world – what primatologists call “grooming.” We don’t need to do any maintenance on these connections so why not keep them. Equating these relationships with “real” relationships is silly. But then I am back to the same conundrum. Why should I have people on a social network that I would not talk to in a real-time/place situation? What if you want a relationship to be meaningful?

I have 88 “friends” on Myspace, 315 on Facebook and 25 on Twitter. In real life, I have about five or ten people I would choose to spend time with all the time, you know, people I always fully enjoy just being around. This is not to say that I do not enjoy lots of people and situations and big groups… but those are definitely peripheral. Every time I remove people from my ‘friend’ list it causes drama; they ask other people why I deleted them and then the other person asks me and it is a whole lot more effort than just keeping them as a ‘friend.’ I wasn’t even friends with these people before, why now? I suppose now we could have evolved and it is a better time to connect. And what of people that you actally ‘meet’ on line? People you would have never met otherwise who could be really important for any number of reasons. But if you have 1,000 ‘friends’ how are you going to have a meaningful relationship with the right ones? How do you even know who are the right ones?

The Economist did a great article that looked at the numbers of Facebook. It basically reiterates what those of us who use these internet site already know, we have a very select group (just like real life!) of people with whom we regularly communicate regardless of how many ‘friends’ we have en masse. And the rest? The peripheral? What are they for? I guess for some people it makes them feel better to have lots of friends, I know when I was 16 I really cared about believing I had a big group of friends. I do not anymore. For some people it appears to be a networking thing. But I really hate that – you know, like people who are adding me on the hope that then my friends will add them and you know, expansion diffusion. Basically exploitation. Maybe for some, it actually is just a collection, you know, like stamps or coins or something and they just like to browse through the pages and pages and pages of people who they could engage with if they wanted to.

I have been wondering if I am actually anti-social because I am only interested in spending time with certain people. I justify this by saying that life is too short to be frazzled by constant input and stimulus all the time. However, maybe casting a bigger net has some advantages like meeting the aforementioned random kismet perfect person. Maybe I am really over thinking it all and there is nothing wrong with a gigantic periphery [after all, according to Walter Christaller, the greater the periphery the more influential the core… so again, size matters. If my periphery is huge my core is therefore more… I don’t know, significant?] I have been accused of putting too much emphasis on quality over quantity quite a bit lately. Perhaps simply knowing your limit is the key and acknowledging your personal Dunbar barrier is enough.

I think I will take a hint from The Bens.


About Amanda

I am repatriating expatriate trying to work it all out. Well, to work some of it out anyhow. I am writing here for sanity, focus and general over-sharing.
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One Response to Dunbar had a number.

  1. Pingback: Unapproachable…? Maybe it’s a filter, maybe it’s a scientific limitation. Maybe it’s BRF. | Really?? Yes. Really.

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