How many best friends can you imagine having? Two? Three? Maybe even five if you’re really social, but probably not fifteen. And definitely not 1,000. There’s a reason they don’t make B/F/F necklaces with that many splits.
There are limits to our ability to maintain meaningful relationships with people. That limit is popularly referred to as the Dunbar Number and it hovers around 150. Professor Dunbar explains it as, “the number of people you wouldn’t feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.” Anyone beyond that number IDFWU.
The Dunbar Number also refers to the maximum number of people possible to maintain a stable group. Whether it’s the Hutterites, Gore-Tex, or military companies that number again hovers around 150.
Dunbar’s Number comes from the theory that primates create monkeyspheres for protection within the physical groups they live. The number of primates in these monkeyspheres or cliques, as the kids say, is limited by the size of their brains. That number is—you guessed it—150.
But hold on. Now that you’re convinced 150 is the magic number you can forget it because Dunbar actually describes a scale of numbers that vary depending on the situation. For instance, you can probably imagine inviting 150 people to your wedding, but you wouldn’t consider them all your best friends.
“Yes, the mailman is going to be my best man. No, I don’t know his name, but I see him every day and he always asks how I’m doing.” –no one ever
So, you might have three besties that you trust with all your passwords but no one else. And your 12-person soccer team works because Steve usually has to bail early. And you can’t even imagine summer camp without a single one of your 50 closest friends, but that year Crystal invited her rando friend was so awkward. And you have mad respect for all 1500 members of your community, but you don’t want to buy them all birthday gifts.
If the nitty-gritty of the Dunbar Number(s) intrigues you, by all means dig that hole to China. But if you’re busy all you really need to understand is that #TheDunbarNumber is a fundamental human trait.
Our human hardware demands that we max out at a finite number of meaningful relationships. Whether you’re a country mouse or a city mouse, iPhone or Android user, or even if you were dropped in the jungle as a child and raised by monkeys without any modern technology whatsoever that finite number averages out to be the same for everyone. That’s why we all use stereotypes to understand the broader world or can imagine mowing down people who walk slowly through crosswalks. “Oh my #$%! gawd, HURRY UP!!!”
The key is realizing that we can’t change #TheDunbarNumber any more than we can change the structure of our brains, but we can use it to create a better society by structuring our social groups accordingly.
Ready to learn more? Try this: