Dunbar’s Number

by Vicki on December 6, 2013

How many friends do you have on Facebook? Followers on Twitter? Connections on LinkedIn? How many social groups do you belong to? How many co-workers do you connect with? How often do you meet with family and friends?

Connections to other people matter.

In fact, research suggests that one of the greatest predictors of happiness is social relationships.

But how much is too much?

This week, I was reminded of a concept that sheds light on our ability to develop and maintain relationships – Dunbar’s Number. Dunbar’s Number is:

…a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. This number was first proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size. By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, he proposed that humans can only comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships.  Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 230, with a commonly used value of 150.

Reading through all the online chatter about Dunbar’s Number and how it applies to today’s world leaves me with more questions/thoughts than answers.

On one hand I think that too many relationships can be physically, emotionally and cognitively taxing and over stimulating. My perspective is that we simply cannot care deeply about and really connect with 1000s of people. Our cognitive limits come into play.

But on the other hand, having many connections in place can be useful and fulfilling.

What I think matters is:

Recognizing that our technical ability, speed and ease to connect with people is changing quickly.

But that our ability to connect with others is constrained by the limits of human cognitive capacities.

The concept of Dunbar’s Number provides us with an interesting concept through which we can think about the relationships we have. How do we connect with others? What is the quality of those connections? Are there relationships to grow? Some to cut?

As it does with most things in life, I think it all comes down to balance and awareness.

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