So on the weekend I went to a college lecture by Prof Robin Dunbar, an experimental psychologist and bona fide intellectual bigwig, on Why Facebook Won’t Get You Any More Friends. Prof Dunbar has a number named after him (the Dunbar Number of 150) which, let’s be honest, is not as cool as having an eponymous meringue dessert (good work Ms Pavlova), but is a sight cooler than giving your name to a Grill (sorry George Foreman). I was super excited to see him, having just read this New Yorker article.
Prof Dunbar’s work (which draws on observations of apes, feral goats and Christmas card-sending humans) focuses on understanding the constraints on social group size. Basically, it comes down to bigger brain = bigger social group size. Prof Dunbar suggests that (based on the size of their neocortex), humans can handle about 150 meaningful relationships. This gets broken down into a series of layers (his theories having a lot more nuances and qualifications than my neocortex is going to let me go into here):
- 150 – about the number of people you’d invite to a large party (casual friends)
- 50 – the number you’d invite to a large dinner (close friends)
- 15 – the number of friends you can confide in about most things (good friends)
- 5 – your best friends
I guess it’s kind of difficult to define the nature of the relationship you’d have with these circles. For example, Prof Dunbar suggests that the 150 group might be those you could join for an impromptu drink at a bar and not have it be awkward, where in my experience that number would be about 40 (and I’d still be preeeetty awkward in most cases). Social energy and quality of relationships can be apportioned differently though. Crunching my social network numbers probably looks more like:
- 100 – the number of people on Facebook whose pictures I’d ‘like’. But this would exclude boys I have romantic flutterings for (because I’d be paranoid that people would read into my ‘like’). Also, holiday albums don’t count; whatever our relationship, I cannot be bothered to look at your over-filtered snaps of sunrises and breakfasts (you know poached eggs are the same in every country, right?)
- 70 – the number of people I’d be happy to invite to a BBQ at my house. I’d sizzle some snags, lay out some ketchup and mustard, and do a big green salad.
- 35 – the number of people I’d be happy to invite to a BBQ at my house where I’m serving more than 3 kinds of meat and making a potato salad. You know you’re inner circle if I’m bothering to peel eggs for you.
- 14 – the number of people I’d cheerfully watch TV with (though this is contingent not only on the closeness of our relationship but whether you’re going to bellyache about canned laughter or insist I share my TV blanket with you)
- 5 – the number of people I feel comfortable calling ‘Bitch’
- 0 – the number of people I’d walk 500 miles for
What’s your Dunbar breakdown?