How many people can you connect with? According to the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the total number of people you can maintain stable social relationships with varies from about a 100 to 230.
We might brag that we have 400, 500, or even 1,000 Facebook “friends” but as we go past that magic number (usually around 150) the quality of connections necessarily degrades. When we get into these higher numbers, we’ve changed the meaning of the word “friend.”
Friendship Has Limits
Dunbar suggests that this cognitive limit is based the size of the human neo-cortex. This limit places a boundary on the basic hunter-gatherer unit that has been the backbone of social relations for most of our time since we became human — the band.
Bands were, and are, usually grouped at about 30-50 individuals, though they might range higher in situations when people need to work together, such as in periods of high environmental pressure. These groups were (and are) most often linked and organized through kinship relations.
Neolithic farming villages were more likely than bands to touch at the limit of Dunbar’s number. As it turns out, groups of 150 people need to spend a fair amount of time working on just staying together. Those groups that expand beyond these numbers seem to break apart under their own social weight. For those looking to cross that line, the keywords are “hierarchy” and “delegation.”
Robin Dunbar, who proposed the number, speculated that in a group of about 150, approximately 42% of the group’s time would need to be spent on social activities that would keep it bonded. The higher the number, the more time needs to be spent maintaining group cohesion. That makes sense, right?
Meetings are Social Grooming
Dunbar’s number is of interest because it explains a couple of features of modern life that otherwise seem rather mysterious. How many times have we sat in departmental meetings and wondered if they’re needed. “Nothing seems to ever get done,” we complain. But without those meetings, even less gets done.
Dunbar’s number gives us a clue why, in any large organization, we need to spend so much time in those meetings instead of doing “productive” work. The meetings are productive work — they help a bunch of fractious primates all keep moving in the same direction.
Our idea of social activity as something that is “not productive” is probably based on faulty models of human behavior and interaction. If we step back and realize just how foreign working in an office and doing a repetitive mental job is for your average primate, then we can get a grasp on the idea that meetings are necessary. Meetings have to be there to reinforce what amount to a series of “unnatural” behaviors–behaviors that run counter to our biological heritage as hunter-gatherers.
Social (Grooming) Media
Meetings that see to eat our time have long been a complaint. But there’s a new time eater: social media. Dunbar’s number can help us understand why we “need” to spend so much time on Facebook and Twitter (and, I suppose, WordPress). When we’re working in groups that are at or beyond the cognitive limits of Dunbar’s number, we need to spend significant amounts of time on our “social grooming” behaviors.
Social grooming doesn’t mean picking the lice out of our friends’ hair, though it does have the same effect. Communicating back and forth, sharing information that makes us seem more human, sending messages that don’t inform so much as share: these are all activities that build familiarity and trust. They let us all reinforce our membership in groups, as well as our positions relative to other members.
On the one hand, “small talk” isn’t some terrible waste of time. It’s our way of connecting with other people, forming a basis for effective communication, and building social capital. Social connections take time, but that doesn’t make them a waste of time.
On the other hand, if you’re looking to increase your “productive” work then you might examine the size of the social network you’re maintaining. You might want to ask yourself who’s really in your band?