Skip to comments.British researcher asks: How many friends can you have? The magic number is 150
Posted on 02/06/2010 4:46:23 AM PST by One_Upmanship
British anthropologist Robin Dunbar says human beings can have no more than 150 friends thats the upper limit the brain can absorb.
His conclusion comes from studying the social group size of monkeys and apes and how that size might relate to the brain.
Initially Dunbar was examining why primates groom each other. If the reason involved sexual bonding, it should correspond to the social brain hypothesis that the reason primates have a large brain is because of their social complexity.
In other words, you need a large brain to keep track of your relationships. Humans, he says, are no different.
Known as Dunbars number, the idea of an upper limit to friends is bound to cause some people especially teens and young adults -- to raise their eyebrows, particularly in this era of social network sites where some people boast of having thousands of friends.
Since first coming up with the number 150, Dunbar, who heads the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, has also looked at what the nature of the friendship is within that circle. And he found that the people within that circle were those that had a personal relationship based on history and a shared experience be it family or friends.
Dunbar, whose book How Many Friends Does One Person Need? has just been published by Faber & Faber in England, describes a persons friends akin to ripples in a pond each ripple representing an ever increasing number of friends from 5 up to 150. Those closest to you are usually family, then close friends and eventually acquaintances.
The other key thing is the 150 friends arent a homogeneous group of people, but rather they are rings of people or circles of friendship that expand outwards.
The first five friends and or family you might be prepared to go to prison for, Dunbar said. The next layer of 10? You wouldnt go to prison for all of them. Youre less emotionally engaged with them, Dunbar says. You might lend them $100. The next layer out, which takes you to 50, your emotional engagement is less but still there. You might lend them $20. The next layer of 100, you might do them a favour.
Everyone outside those 150 are people you may not even have a reciprocal friendship with, he added.
Dunbar said that once he had determined the upper range of friends, he examined a wide range of historical and contemporary settings to see if the number still applied. And it did in everything from villages 100 years ago in which the population hovered around 150 to individuals social networking sites. Even the Gore-Tex fabrics factory keeps its employees at 150 at each of its sites, he said.
Some of Dunbars work on the magic number 150 is being used in other areas of research, including the development of mobile phones and how much storage is actually needed for peoples address books, as well as building the optimum organizational structure.
Even last years international banking crisis might have been averted if the number 150 had been applied, Dunbar said. If the banks units had been smaller, everyone might have known what was going on and felt more responsibility towards each other.
150? I think his idea of a “friend” is most people’s idea of a nodding acquaintance.
Yes, but are they really friends?
I whole-heartedly agree with your sentiment!
This is obviously a very complex issue, but if I may pick out a single item which puzzles me most:
Time and time again, I have observed (not only in my own relationships, but also, from afar, in the relationships of others) that many people who regard themselves as faithful friends who would go to great lengths to help a friend, are constitutionally unable to maintain these relationships once the other person is out of "earshot" or "eyeshot." Apparently, the mere "mechanics" of updating address books, informing others of their change of address, sending at least pro-forma Christmas and birthday greetings, or responding to messages, overtaxes these people.
Does anyone have an explanation for this phenomenon?
That’s interesting. I have seen many Facebook profiles with exactly 150 friends.
First 50 years
Parents = 2
Aunts & uncles = 20
Siblings = 6
Cousins = 50
School = 20
Spouse = 1
Children = 4
More In-laws =8
I’m oversimplifying here, but this is a useful way to segment how people view their social network participation:
Close Friends: These folks view social networks as sites for staying up to date on a limited set of close connections. As in, “actual” friends.
Information Seekers: These folks, including me, expand beyond those with whom they have a pre-existing connection. Their interest is a bit of networking, and tapping information in their field.
Power Networkers: These folks amass thousands of connections. In the offline world, they’d have huge rolodexes. They want to connect with as many people as possible. Connections are fundamental to their professions. Think Chris Brogan and Robert Scoble.
The Close Friends users really want just that…updates from and interactions with their actual offline connections. When they post an update, they’ll hear from someone they know. When they read an update, it will be from someone they know. This is what Dunbar’s Number is all about.
Then there are the rest of us.
If Dunbar’s Number is defined at 150 connections, perhaps we can term the looser connection of thousands as Scoble’s Number. The next model of social connections. Now let me explain what I’m saying here.
I’m not saying we can magically follow thousands of people closely because of social media. We can’t.
I’m not saying that we won’t have close connections that we know much more about. We will.
I am saying that a significant percentage of our online interactions will be with people about whom we know little.
That last point occurs as your connections get larger and larger. I follow 1,600 people on FriendFeed, 1,100 on Twitter. I can say from experience now that I know little about many of the people with whom I have @reply and thread conversations.
And it doesn’t bother me. I get plenty of value from these drive-by interactions.
Here’s how I differentiate interactions between Dunbar’s Number and Scoble’s Number:
In the top graph for Dunbar’s Number, you’re aware of a fuller range of what’s happening in someone’s life. Even if you aren’t actively trying to know about it. This is the stuff of warm friendships. You internalize a lot more information about someone, and they know a lot more about you. You develop short-hand ways of talking, and can call on older experiences to relate to new information and developments.
The bottom graph is for Scoble’s Number. Here, you only intersect socially with someone periodically. This happens when the stars align:
Scoble’s Number is a our new reality. By maintaining a larger number of weaker connections, you can tap a wider range of opinions. People often deride “echo chamber” aspects of social media. Well, if you’re only paying attention to same people over and over, you will have created your own personal echo chamber.
This is not to say that we don’t have a more limited set of people we trust as information filters. Those people are important for keeping on top of things in a more systematic way.
But I tend to think of Scoble’s Number as a rich, chaotic frenzy of interactions that never would have occurred before social media was adopted so heavily. Online bulletin boards have this aspect, in that you “followed” thousands of participants on them. Think of molecules bouncing around, with occasional collisions. It’s these collisions where interesting reactions occur. Where you learn things you didn’t know, and you get perspective from people beyond your immediate circle.
It’s healthy. And given the growing participation in social media, and the low friction for finding and interacting with others, I see the trend as favoring Scoble’s Number.
Over time, some connections will move from being out there in your Scoble’s Number into your more personal Dunbar’s Number.
Probably why I have maybe 4 that I can account for in my entire life as true friends.
A friend will bail you out of jail; your best friend is in the cell with you, saying,”Damn that was fun. Let’s do it again.”
A friend will help you with your drug problem; your best friend scored them and invited you to party.
A friend knows where the bodies are buried; your best friend helped you bury them.
For the posters on DU, that's a lot of blow-up dolls.
And while you're out I need a gallon of fat-free milk. ;)
When your only tool is a hammer...Dunbar said that once he had determined the upper range of friends, he examined a wide range of historical and contemporary settings to see if the number still applied. And it did -- in everything from villages 100 years ago in which the population hovered around 150 to individuals' social networking sites. Even the Gore-Tex fabrics factory keeps its employees at 150 at each of its sites, he said. Some of Dunbar's work on the magic number 150 is being used in other areas of research, including the development of mobile phones and how much storage is actually needed for people's address books, as well as building the optimum organizational structure. Even last year's international banking crisis might have been averted if the number 150 had been applied, Dunbar said.Nutbar may be more like it. Hey, another anthropology topic! Thanks One_Upmanship.
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As long as they all are women.
My own personal limit on friends is 5.
Any more than that is just too much bother.
Wonder how this applies to FreeRepublic b/c of all the social networking that goes on here.
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