Dunbar’s Number: Find Out How This Little Number Governs Everything You Do

There is one little number that is key to most of your major problems. When you learn about this number, you will realize what the main culprit of your frequent despair is.

What is this magical, all powerful number? Wait for it… wait for it… it’s 150!

WTF?

Dunbar’s number is the number of people you can maintain a stable and meaningful social relationship with, and is based on some calculations done by Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist and psychologist.

This is how he came up with the number:

I was working on the arcane question of why primates spend so much time grooming one another, and I tested another hypothesis – which says the reason why primates have big brains is because they live in complex social worlds. Because grooming is social, all these things ought to map together, so I started plotting brain size and group size and grooming time against one another. You get a nice set of relationships.

It was about 3am, and I thought, hmm, what happens if you plug humans into this? And you get this number of 150. This looked implausibly small, given that we all live in cities now, but it turned out that this was the size of a typical community in hunter-gatherer societies. And the average village size in the Domesday Book is 150 [people].

What he is saying is that the psychological make-up of humans is geared towards living in a community of around 150 (plus or minus) people. This is the number that is observed in hunter-gatherer societies around the world, but also the average number of people that have lived in villages up until modern times.

Chimps also confirm this number, with the largest chimp community in the wild, the Ngogo group in Uganda, numbering around 200 individuals (but most other groups being even smaller – around 50 to 60).

In such communities, you know everyone, you interact with everyone and know a lot about them. You can observe other people in your community and learn much about who they are and how they do things.

You can also form much closer links and bonds with them. Contrast this to how people are living in the cities of the modern world.

People are everywhere, yet it seems that most people are feeling more isolated than ever. Less and less people have deep relationships with other people. Rates of depression are skyrocketing.

The reason for this is found in Dunbar’s number. In cities, on a daily basis you encounter many more people than this in different types of situations.

It is impossible to form stable relationships with most of them. You only interact in very limited situations and don’t get to know them well.

The social relationships between people are broken. In one instance you are together with one group of people (for example at work), at another instance you interact with another group of people (for example in an after-work class), but these interactions are often shallow.

In the meanwhile, you also pass countless other people in the streets. All these different combinations add to the complexity and your brain usually isn’t able to handle this in an optimal way. There is a huge disconnect.

People are trying to substitute this void with social media, but deep down it isn’t working.

Maria Konnikova writes that the core of human bonding are face-to-face shared experiences. This is getting replaced by supposedly shared experiences online:

We do have a social-media equivalent—sharing, liking, knowing that all of your friends have looked at the same cat video on YouTube as you did—but it lacks the synchronicity of shared experience. It’s like a comedy that you watch by yourself: you won’t laugh as loudly or as often, even if you’re fully aware that all your friends think it’s hysterical. We’ve seen the same movie, but we can’t bond over it in the same way.

This means most relationships in the modern world are quite superficial. This type of online interaction also kills your real life social skills:

As Dunbar states:

In the sandpit of life, when somebody kicks sand in your face, you can’t get out of the sandpit. You have to deal with it, learn, compromise. On the internet, you can pull the plug and walk away. There’s no forcing mechanism that makes us have to learn.

That’s why narcissism seems to be growing.

The main reason for this is that the number of people we have to deal with on different levels in this world is way above the 150 Dunbarites.

David Wong, in an excellent post on what he calls the “monkeysphere” illustrates what happens:

Most of us do not have room in our Monkeysphere for our friendly neighborhood sanitation worker. So, we don’t think of him as a person. We think of him as The Thing That Makes The Trash Go Away.

Most humans become just statistics barely even registering on your radar. The further away they are, the less you care.

Wong further describes the process:

Those who exist outside that core group of a few dozen people are not people to us. They’re sort of one-dimensional bit characters.

Remember the first time, as a kid, you met one of your school teachers outside the classroom? Maybe you saw old Miss Puckerson at Taco Bell eating refried beans through a straw, or saw your principal walking out of a dildo shop. Do you remember that surreal feeling you had when you saw these people actually had lives outside the classroom?

I mean, they’re not people. They’re teachers.

This changes people’s behavior dramatically. We all know those keyboard “alphas” screaming abuse at all those random pseudonyms like “bighunk69” or “Saskatoon Playboy”. Do you think he would act that way if they were face to face? 🙂

Distance, separation and anonymity create different patterns of behavior for people than if they are face to face with people they know.

This is also why people like railing against “the establishment”, or some other bogeyman. And that’s why others don’t care about you.

To once again quote Wong:

That’s why they don’t mind stealing your stereo or vandalizing your house or cutting your wages or raising your taxes or bombing your office building or choking your computer with spam advertising diet and penis drugs they know don’t work. You’re outside their Monkeysphere. In their mind, you’re just a vague shape with a pocket full of money for the taking.

Actually fuck it, the post by Wong is so awesome, I’ll quote it again (since this last quote nicely illustrates the point of his entire post):

Listen to any 16 year-old kid with his first job, going on and on about how the boss is screwing him and the government is screwing him even more (“What’s FICA?!?!” he screams as he looks at his first paycheck).

Then watch that same kid at work, as he drops a hamburger patty on the floor, picks it up, and slaps in on a bun and serves it to a customer.

In that one dropped burger he has everything he needs to understand those black-hearted politicians and corporate bosses. They see him in the exact same way he sees the customers lined up at the burger counter. Which is, just barely.

People are hypocrites. They will rage against someone for doing something, and then turn around and do the same exact thing without even batting an eyelid.

Not that this doesn’t happen in small communities (after all, most people are self-centered and Machiavellian by nature), but it’s much harder to do to someone you know and care about, than to someone who you have barely even met.

Social alienation is much stronger for the average city dweller, not only from the other people around them, but also from the environment they live in. This is what causes many of the depression problems that seem to be skyrocketing.

Dr. Brainiac: “Hey, Mr. Chimp. What are you doing?

Smart Chimp glances up from his smartphone: “Just throwing random abuse at some guy called Dunbar69.

Dr. Brainiac: “That’s not very nice.

Smart Chimp: “Don’t give a fuck.

Dr. Brainiac shakes his head and continues: “Yeah, but you wouldn’t behave this way with people you know and trust.

Smart Chimp: “Watch me!

Smart Chimp slaps Dr. Brainiac and quickly scuttles up the nearest tree.

Read More:
The end of the world is near, the selfie-stick is here

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