Dunbar’s number, twenty-fourteen, and other accounting

Neighbors' doors

In the social sciences there is a hypothesis, popularly known as Dunbar’s number, which holds that there is a limit to the number of people an individual can maintain meaningful relationships with, which is approximately 150. According to its proponent, anthropologist Robin Dunbar, it is “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.” Interestingly, this number has been supported by observations in society: it is the size of hunter-gatherer clans, Western military units throughout history, and the offices of firms with nonhierarchical organizational structures, among others.

I was reminded of this concept in my recollection of the year 2014. It was a year of significant change for me: I graduated from university, starting working at a corporate job, and relocated to a city across the metropolis. The people I see on a day-to-day basis now is a very much different set of faces from those I was used to seeing earlier in the year.

Dunbar’s number is fascinating because it is a scientific formulation of the common-sense knowledge that we can have only so many friends. Dunbar, who came up with the statistic for humans by studying other primates and then correlating the brain sizes of species with their corresponding social group sizes, delivered a concrete number to account for social circles. It converted the questionable activity of counting one’s friends into a legitimate matter of economics. (In fact, in relation to Dunbar’s number, social scientists use such terms as ‘social capital’.)

Inevitably, the matter of social networking has been brought up to challenge this number. There are conflicting approaches: while Facebook, for instance, believes in the capacity of technology to increase Dunbar’s number, another service, Path, embraces it by limiting users’ activities to only 150 contacts. The phenomenon of online social networking is a very recent one, and its effects on human social capabilities are still to be determined. Perhaps we will have to wait for the current generation to grow up—the first generation after the birth of personal computing. Though certainly, there will always be that limit to the number people we will get to know in our lives.

And it is a solemn thought. It only deepened what I feel for the year that was, which is gratitude, like most other people. Numbering 150 or not, I am grateful for everyone who had, still are, or are yet to cross paths with me in this journey of life.

Sources and further reading


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