Have you ever been romantically interested in someone but that someone just wanted nothing more than your friendship? If you have, then you probably delivered (whether in your head or out loud) a version or two of the line: “I have enough friends already.” Your understanding, of course, is that an average person only holds a certain number of buddies within their emotional threshold.
Well, as it turns out, that thought is far from being an excuse. There are certain limits to the number of people an average person can have in his or her social circle, and that includes having a “healthy” limit to social media connections. The question of whether these limits are applicable in today’s more connected world – one in which it’s common to have profiles on social media, or at least some form of online presence, with thousands or millions of followers – is more complicated.
British psychologist and anthropologist Robin Dunbar estimate the “magic number” to be at 150. His studies on social connections of groups among non-human primates convinced him that the size of a particular species’ brain is proportionate to the group sizes among social circles.
With the help of neuroimaging, the Emeritus Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford’s Department of Psychology visualized this ratio based on the amount time of time spent on grooming, an essential aspect of social behavior among primates.
The study’s conclusion states that the size of the body and the neocortex – the section of the brain responsible for cognition and language – correlates to the size of a cohesive social group. Dunbar’s ratio (now called the Dunbar Number) provides a ceiling on how much a particular social system can handle.
What are the Signs?
Some of you may argue that Dunbar’s research focused on non-human primates, but what about people? Remember that the number is just an average and it can be in between 100 to 250 people. But is there really such a thing as the right or ideal number of friends and family you can keep close?
Professor Dunbar thinks so and even claims that it is the optimal number to which connections can be maintained for a community to thrive effectively. This number also extends to other circles where people get to socialize.
In groups like hunter-gatherer societies, the average number of people medieval villages, and in 18th-century England, you’ll be surprised to find that each group of people are limited to more or less 150. The number is even consistent with the average size of parishes in Hutterites and the Amish communities.
Breaking down his magic number, there are different layers of closeness and intimacy. From the given total, 50 of them are delegated as acquaintances or friends that are kept at a certain distance. Another 15 are close friend, those we turn to for emotional support and another 4 or 5 friends that we have intense intimate relationships with. Romantic partners, on the other hand, are equivalent to two close friends.
The number was inspired by Bill Gore of Gore-Tex fame. What most people do not know is that Gore’s company, W.L. Gore & Associates, is generating yearly revenues of USD 3 billion with a head count of 9,500 employees. Where does 150 come in here, you ask?
In each Gore-Tex factory, the number of employees working do not exceed this figure. Gore believes that everyone knowing everyone makes a sense of connection between people. This, in turn, enables people to know who does what, this subsequently eliminates the need for a hierarchy while increasing each person’s commitment to the organization’s goals.
Chris Cox, Facebook’s Chief Product Officer, agrees and shares from experience that a company’s structure and communications needs to at least be reconsidered after going beyond this number.
Does This Apply to Modern Online Connections?
Dunbar’s number when placed in a modern, real-world context becomes an instant point of debate considering how social media has taken over our understanding of interpersonal relations and regular interactions with people. We all have first-hand experience on developing friends through these social networks so how does Dunbar’s friendship cap apply?
The professor himself claims that based on an equation that finds a relation between group size and brain size of both monkeys and apes, it’s all the people you know and have relationships with. These include family and friends as well.
The experiences of both Gore and Cox would provide practical examples at this point. For one, it explains why the United States military, following a long, grueling period of trial and error, decreed that 150 is the most appropriate size for a fighting unit to function efficiently.
Likewise, Dunbar’s observations on Facebook traffic patterns also found that while people may have thousands of so-called “friends”, they only interact with 150 people.
Adding it all up, he recognized that humans evolved in groups of 150, and this number is the upper limit to the number of interpersonal relationships our neocortex can process.
Using factors like the number of groups in common and private messages sent to map, the application of Dunbar’s theory shows the number of ties against the strength of those ties.
In his quantity vs quality research, Dunbar found that those who have 500 or more friends on Facebook or 1,500 followers on Twitter only have outer contact layers (otherwise known as low-stakes connections).
Beyond 150 connections, sharing intimate moments or relationships with other people is simply impossible. Dunbar furthers that digital platforms including phones and television only provide alternative means of interacting with friends.
How Similar Can it Be with Personal Friendships and Connections?
In any online community or platform, we could be practically anyone we wish to be, changing every bit of information and detail we otherwise legally have. But even this concept of online anonymity seems to show little-to-no difference from the actual offline world.
Dunbar compares these anonymous online interactions to devout Catholics’ use of confessionals. It’s not considered a close relationship, it does, however recognize the benefits of confidentiality among virtual strangers.
Likewise, Dunbar further deadpans the intimacy of online friendships because of the simple fact that crying to a virtual shoulder is next to impossible. Sharing stories or problems to people is not akin to a lighthouse blinking out in the open, hoping someone out there will take notice.
With this perspective, the virtual, distanced nature of online connectivity means that they cannot replace the physical, real-time, and meaningful relationships of the real world.
Personal interactions, with all the non-verbal gestures and actions are so critical to communication and should remain paramount as basis of relationships.
Dunbar’s research however reflects a difference among generations in this regard. People who are 18–24 years old significantly have more online presence and activity than their 55 and above counterparts. This is caused by the technologies of each segment’s time.
The young people who have never known life without the internet may prefer less physical contact and more online interaction, the more tenured ones, on the other hand, would prefer personal connections because of factors such as preference to go out more and risks of too much exposure to mobile screens.
Is It Really that Constrained?
Thanks to the internet’s global reach, we now have the capability know basically anyone, anywhere across the world. Simply put, modern connectivity has significantly expanded our potential to meet new friends. This leads to the question, why should the number of our actual friends remain limited?
To put Dunbar’s points into context, we as social beings can establish friendships with basically anyone, at least in theory. But it also iterates that in a single time, we do not have enough resources to maintain relationships beyond 150 individuals.
As most people tend to overlook, friendships depend on two finite resources: time and mental capacity. Even with our collaborative nature, the social relationships we have are processed on specific part of our brain. It’s the part where information such as shared moments and memories are stored and added up to achieve intimacy with friends.
Some may exceed this number but it’s impossible to fit in an infinite number of complex connections in a single storage unit; there is a limit for the capacity of connections, and we can only maintain approximately 150 relationships.
There are also only 24 hours in a day, and friendships require time, too. When you spend more time with a friend than usual, you typically grow closer to them; spending less time with them, on the other hand, means the relationship decays. Because quality time is essential to closeness, your capacity for closeness with others is limited.
As more sites and apps make use of the social functions that Facebook and LinkedIn popularized, more and more people are holding on to the idea of small being better. At least in terms of online social interactions. One of the issues with the massive social networking sites that now the majority of daily living is attributed to scale. With people now realizing how social media can create wrong impressions in the online community at large, certain Facebook users prefer idea of smaller and more secret better.
So far, the findings of Dunbar and colleagues’ research regarding online connections suggest that these are similar to actual, physical relationships, as far as numerical restrictions are concerned.
Looking at how players see the structure of their online gaming world, what they see is essentially the same layers as most of us get in all of the other contexts, he says. Design-wise, it just looks very similar to the design features of our minds and it imposes limits on the number of people you can mentally work with at any given time.
What About Celebrities and Other Prominent Figures?
Before anything else, one thing everyone should understand is that actors, musicians, rock stars, television personalities, athletes, politicians, and the like are people too. Which means their capacity is pretty much similar to everyone else. This means that the people within their friends and social circles are also somewhere in between 100-250. They may manage more than the average of 150 but the fans and followers they have on Instagram or Snapchat do not count. For one they may be known across the world but personally, they have no idea who these people are in real life.
For regular folks who see these celebrities on movies, tv shows, or concerts, remember that our minds have a primitive pattern embedded into it. It has open slots and we have them filled with random popular personalities whom we have regular contact, but most of these interactions come in the form of gossip. In the old days, gossip brought relevant information that helped a clan of 150 people survive. Because it only had that much people, what happened to particular member of the group directly affects everyone else within the circle.
Modern media, however, has betrayed the basic principles of this concept. Now, the reason why we need to keep up with the Kardashians is not because of how the controversies they find themselves in affect our home lives, the reason is more inclined on our failure to realize or differentiate the celebrities that we know and the friends or relatives that we know. The authority bias these prominent personalities bring influences us greatly and inclines us to believe them.
So, Should a Number Really Be Set?
It’s logical that there’s a limit to the number of relationships a person can have at a given time. What remains unclear is whether that capacity is increasing or decreasing given the ever-changing ways people interact online. As good as Dunbar’s points are, there must be more factors that can affect interpersonal relationships than just numbers.
Military companies of 150 or less have performed poorly before and a few startup organizations of less than 150 people have failed as well. Even if we cite the proven success of W.L.Gore & Associates, there are other factors that influence the high engagement rates among their people and organization.
Some of these factors may have been directly lifted from the medieval village, military units or online community of practice. But when it all comes down to it, maintaining interpersonal relationships are just a matter of values and right conduct.