My post for the Ministers Of Design Blog
Revolutionary evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has the answer to the question of how many friends do you need. The Director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University earned the coveted honor of having a number named after him when he posited that 150 is the number of people we can maintain a meaningful social connection with.
Robin Dunbar arrived at that number by conducting a study of the Christmas-card-sending habits of the British. Amongst some of the findings of the study were that about a quarter of cards went to relatives, nearly two-thirds to friends, and 8 percent to colleagues. The chief finding, however, was the number of cards sent out always seemed to converge around the number 150. Over the past two decades, he and other researchers have arrived at 150 as the magical Pi-like number of social relationships. “The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us,” Dunbar explains. “Putting it another way, it’s 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.”
Dunbar’s work has been of tremendous interest to social media architects who initially conjectured that this number could very easily climb in the baseball-card-version-of-friends world of Facebook and its ilk. Facebook conducted research on this: while the median friend count on Facebook is 100, for most people (84%), the median friend count of their friends is higher than their own friend count. “Facebook has muddied the waters by calling them all friends, but really they are not,” Dunbar states. He regards Facebook’s main impact on social circles as an ability to preserve long-standing or long-distance friendships that might otherwise decay rapidly. The downside, he suggests, is hanging onto old and remote friendships prevents us from making new non-remote ones: “Since friends exist to be shoulders to cry on (metaphorically speaking!) and shoulders that are physically remote aren’t much use for crying on, this might not be ideal.”
The scope of Dunbar’s work is significantly larger than the rather reductionistic concept of 150 and he has continued to conduct research and expand his study of human social interaction. And while Dunbar’s number has been critiqued, it has managed to withstand the test of replication, remaining relevant event two decades later ( for example, research conducted in 2011 on Twitter found the average number of people a user regularly interacts with falls between 100 and 200). Dunbar agrees that people have different social networks for different purposes, but he qualified the term “friend” as a person we have an emotional connection with, independent of his/her utility to us: “Someone like your boss, or the person you borrow $50 from to pay the drug dealer, these people are meaningful in your life, but they’re not meaningful to you as relationships.”
The ultimate question remains not how many friends one can have on Facebook but how many friends one actually pays mind and heed to. As Dunbar explains, “Yes, I can find out what you had for breakfast from your Tweet, but can I really get to know you better? These digital developments help us keep in touch, when in the past a relationship might just have died; but in the end, we actually have to get together to make a relationship work.” Dunbar was first inspired to conduct this sort of research when he examined the grooming patterns of apes–what differentiated the humans was not just brain size but, much more importantly, the capacity for language. This capacity, funnily enough, is what is hyper developed in the world of social networking, yet Dunbar would argue words are hardly the glue of a strong emotional bond. Real meaningful interaction, research shows, still remains face-based and not word or baseball-card-collection-based.