In the early 1990s, a British anthropologist named Robin Dunbar argued that humans could not handle more than 150 stable conditions based on the size of the human brain neocortex and observations of other primate groups socializing. Now a research team in Sweden says that the number is bunk.
The team claims that Dunbar’s number – really a set of numbers that define different circles of intimacy and their sizes, with the 150s for casual friends being the most quoted – is not a fair way to decrypt human sociality. Their study is published today in the journal Biology Letters.
The researchers performed the same analyzes as Dunbar, but with new methods and updated data from the now 30-year-old data set. They found that the average maximum group size among primates was actually lower than 150 individuals, but the number was in a chasm of statistical uncertainty, which put the actual maximum group size number between two and 520 – hardly a range to continue.
“What we did was replicate Dunbar’s original analysis, but with more data and updated statistical methods,” said Patrik Lindenfors, a zoological ecologist at the Institute for Futures Studies in Stockholm, in an email. “Our most important point is that the 95% confidence interval is too large to allow any number to be entered, as Dunbar did.”
Dunbar’s 150 was really the center of a range; a person could have around 100 to 200 of these stable conditions. But that interval does not fit the new analysis either. Dunbar’s other groupings were 1,500 (in total number of people you can name), 500 (most acquaintances a person could have), 150 (stable relationship, a vague term that basically means people you have regularly social contact with), 50 (friends, but not your inner circle), 15 (maximum close friends) and then elite five (or so – these are your best friends and loved ones). But Dunbar said this group was fluids; counts may vary slightly and people toppled drift in and out of these bullets.
According to Lindenfors, there is more than just biology behind our social capacity; in other words, it does not quite come down to the neocortex and our innate tendencies as human creatures.
“Most people who read this article know more than 20,000 words,” he said. “People learn all sorts of things. Why would we not be able to use this ability for social purposes? ”
Dunbar came up with his numbers in the new days of the World Wide Web. Since then, we have developed social networks that have changed what it means to be a “friend”. Previously, with the Dunbar number in mind, Wired checked in with 1,000 Facebook friends with some interesting (and mixed) results that remind us how little one can interact with so-called friends in a social network.
“Culture affects everything from the size of social networks to whether we can play chess or if we like hiking,” said co-author Johan Lind, a cognitive scientist at Stockholm University, at a university release. “Just as anyone can learn to remember a huge number of decimals in the number pi, our brain can be trained to have more social contacts.”
Of course, we have come a long way even from the beginning of social media. Maybe the pandemic reminded you of the relationships that matter most in your life, or helped you split yourself from the comfort friends. Maybe you’ll never see 150 people in the same video call again, much less in real life. Like many “rules,” Dunbar’s number may not hold up beyond the enormous diversity of humanity.
More: Is Dunbar’s friend-limiting number still relevant in the Facebook era?