Dumbing Down Dunbar’s Number: Even Dumberer

[I’ve decided to “reprint” and update an old article that I wrote in January 2008. Where its text ends, I’ve included a supplementary update of thoughts where I think this originally fell short.]

I just realized that I have abused Robin Dunbar’s intriguing model of how humans maintain social groups.

Not only me, but many others have ‘dumbed down’ Dunbar’s idea that the mean maximum for functioning human social groupings hovers around 150 persons (precisely 148, with a 95% confidence interval of 100-230).

What does this have to do with the College of Mythic Cartography? Hell, I don’t know. I mean, it has everything do with it. Ask me some other time. Let me get the issue down on electronic paper first.

Most folks hear this notion, and think one of several things (non-inclusively):

1) I can only have 150 human relationships

2) I can only have 100-230 human relationships

3) I can only have a mean maximum of 150 meaningful human relationships

4) Only 150 of my Myspace friends count

5) Companies should number no larger than 150 employees

6) Ideally sized Towns have 150 people in them, or neighborhoods of 150 people.

And the drivel goes on, with the magic number ‘150’ tossed around like a new-age talking stick. If you say someting, and include the number 150, you’ve said something profound.

All of this misses an important secondary assertion that Dunbar makes. Namely, that it takes substantial work to maintain a social network.

Dunbar’s number only refers to a tightly cohesive human social network, capable of efficient (and life-affirming!) collaboration. Villages, military units, highly focused groups that emerge in the presence of intense environmental or economic pressures. Each of those possible 150 relationships that Dunbar refers to operate at a high-functioning level that many folks in our culture have never experienced beyond a very small group of friends or family. For some, only a family member or two, and a couple of friends, have relationships with them that fit the profile.

Dunbar estimates that to maintain the (mean) 150 high-functioning relationships, intrinsic to original and indigenous human cultures (village and cultural lineage groups), one must spend 42% of one’s time ‘social grooming’. This almost requires a certain level of constant physical proximity. The smaller the group you maintain, the smaller the portion of your time dedicated to maintenance (but also the less benefit you receive). A social network of 10 would not require 42% of your time spent in strengthening intimate social connections.

He coins ‘social grooming’ from the behavior of primates who spend time bonding through grooming behaviors. This should give you some idea of the nature of the work involved in maintaining a high-functioning relationship, rather than an acquaintanceship. ‘Social grooming’ doesn’t mean ‘spending time with’, it means creating and strengthening intimacy.

Think about this.

The fact that ancestral villages and cultural groups could get to, and maintain, a group of 150 tightly-knit individuals that stayed in relative physical proximity, constitutes an amazing achievement and a testament to the power of those traditional cultures.

This implies that most modern humans rarely experience these relationships on any significant network level. How much time do we spend bonding with others in a meaningful way?

And once we’ve started these bonded relationships (childhood and school friends, family, etc.), we can still lose those connections as the years pass, too, when we don’t know the value in them, and don’t maintain them.

Perhaps what has destroyed the landscape of modern american families, friendships, and workplaces, amounts to the problem that we have huge networks of acquaintances, but precious few fully human relationships.

Not families, but regularly interacting acquaintances.

Not friendships, but folks who ‘share interests’ and ‘know each other’.

I don’t say this to pronounce dire and certain doom on our lives. I say this to so that we can go, “HEY! LOOK! A thing! A thing that matters.”

When your Grandma (if you luckily had one like this) said, “Family comes first – family matters most,” you may not have known the profound human survival wisdom embedded in that statement. When she, or any other relative or friend, pestered you to attend that party, or that event, that you passed up because it seemed such a waste of time, now you know you (and your children, and your family) have paid for that in the wages of depression, exhaustion, isolation, disconnectedness.

So hey. Let’s get together more often. And when we do, let’s play some games, sing some songs, and take some risks to do some stuff that actually brings us closer. And lets build up our little groups, and count our wealth one by one, in each deep and fully human relationship.

Because it matters. It really, really matters.

Update in November 2008:

I picked this article up to read it again, and I feel I didn’t “step” on the point I wanted to make strongly enough, a point still important today.

Most workplaces or groups that obsess with this “150” number, do so thinking that their adherence to it (or lack thereof) will have an impact. It won’t.

It won’t have any effect at all, unless that group dedicates 42% of their time (and imagine a business or corporation doing this!) to SOCIAL GROOMING, quite literally the modern human version of relaxedly picking nits out of each other’s hair. This means 42% of their time spent playing icebreaker games, giving hugs, talking about their children, massaging each other, etc.

Dunbar’s number doesn’t mean squat without the social grooming aspect; humans can have countless acquaintanceships (although, sure, you will hit a ceiling even with those), certainly more than 150. No problem.

The number 150 indicates an achievement, something you’ve earned, because you have fully invested that 42% of your time to make this HUGE group of intimates and extended family possible, a group that can then move forward to accomplish amazing collaborative team goals together, because of your investment.

And, no matter how hard you work socially grooming the people in your network, beyond 150 people your ability to keep up with further additions to your intimate network drops. Either because of psychological capacity, or the simple logistics of grooming that many folks, maintaing an intimately connected group bigger than 150 becomes more and more difficult until it becomes impossible altogether. New additions remain that which, in the modern world, we see as “normal” relationships – they become acquaintances. Not “things”, or “its”, but just acquaintances.

Statistically speaking.

Written by Willem