After last weeks foray into self-help books and people not being able to be themselves or needing to wear a mask to the world. We thought we’d dive a little deeper into the study of evolutionary anthropology and look at one of only a handful of men who have a number named after him. Once we’ve done all that we’ll attempt to make light of why we struggle when presented with so much choice and why our choices often lead to what is more commonly known as the ‘fear of missing out’ or as the kids tend to say these days FOMO. So as we kick of another week of A Mind of Its Own we welcome old friends and new friends alike to yet another addition of Australia’s favourite blog. The country just doesn’t know it yet…
Being a topic that has piqued our interest us for quite some time now we thought it was only prudent that we lend our hand to spreading the message that is the study of evolutionary anthropology and psychology. It’s only fitting that we start with the man that introduced us to some of the studies that captured our imagination. It was Mark Manson who pointed out Professor Robin Dunbar and his now famous number in a talk he gave about his most recent self help book ‘Everything is F#cked’ that he gave at the Brisbane Powerhouse. The team attended as part of our exploration into the self help world and it’s so called gurus. (See previous blog for more context around the topic). So who is Robin Dunbar?, What is the Dunbar number and how did he come up with it? All will be revealed below along with some of our own observations, calculations and salutations.
Robin Ian McDonald Dunbar, born 28th of June 1947, for those that are into Astrology he’s a cancer, yep a crab. The man hails from our motherland, yes England and we wonder whether he’s ever thrown out the convict title when referring to all of us in the land down under. An anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist by trade he specialises in primate behaviour. However when asked what his research is all about Professor Dunbar usually responds with the following. He’s written multiple books on psychology, evolution, anthropology as well as scientific and research journals. Been interviewed on several occasions regarding the Dunbar number as well as had several people try to disprove his theory only to come back to the magic number around 150.
“My research is concerned with trying to understand the behavioural, cognitive and neuroendocrinological mechanisms that underpin social bonding in primates (in general) and humans (in particular). Understanding these mechanisms, and the functions that relationships serve, will give us insights on how humans have managed to create large scale societies using a form of psychological that is evolutionarily adapted to very small scale societies, and why these mechanisms are less than perfect in the modern world. This has implications for the design of social networking sites as well as mobile technology. We use conventional behavioural and cognitive experimental approaches, combined with network analysis, agent based modelling, comparative studies of primate brain evolution, neuroimaging and neuroendocrinology to explore explicit and implicit processes at both the dyadic and the group level. An important feature of our behavioural studies has been the constraints that time places on an individual’s ability to manage their relationships, and the cognitive tricks used to overcome these”.
So how did he come up with the Dunbar number and what is it? There is a complex answer and a simple answer to what is the Dunbar number and if you read on well explain how Professor Dunbar came up with it. But First things first. The Dunbar number, what is it? It is the number of people you can have a relationship with involving trust and obligation. There is some personal history and not just names and faces. That’s the simple answer, the more complex answer goes a little something like this. The way our social world is constructed is part and parcel of our biological inheritance. Together with apes and monkeys, we form part of the primate family. Within that family there is a general relationship between the size of the brain and the size of the social group. We fit within a pattern. There are social circles beyond it and layers within it but there is a natural grouping that averages around 150. The Dunbar number is actually a series of them. The best known, a hundred and fifty, is the number of people we call casual friends—the people, say, you’d invite to a large party. (In reality, it’s a range: a hundred at the low end and two hundred for the more social of us.)
From there, through qualitative interviews coupled with analysis of experimental and survey data, Dunbar discovered that the number grows and decreases according to a precise formula, roughly a “rule of three.” The next step down, fifty, is the number of people we call close friends—perhaps the people you’d invite to a group dinner. You see them often, but not so much that you consider them to be true intimates. Then there’s the circle of fifteen: the friends that you can turn to for sympathy when you need it, the ones you can confide in about most things. The most intimate Dunbar number, five, is your close support group. These are your best friends (and often family members). On the flipside, groups can extend to five hundred, the acquaintance level, and to fifteen hundred, the absolute limit—the people for whom you can put a name to a face. While the group sizes are relatively stable, their composition can be fluid. Your five today may not be your five next week; people drift among layers and sometimes fall out of them altogether.
Firstly, it’s a little confusing as there is no specific number actually assigned as the ‘Dunbar number’, as previously stated above however 150 is a common number which is associated and the answer as to why will become more apparent as we explain how Professor Dunbar came across his numbering during a study. As to how the study came about well thanks to our cousins in the animal kingdom. Yes primates, whilst working on why primates spend so much time grooming each other he wanted to test a hypothesis that says primates have big brains and the reason why is because they live in a complex social world. Grooming being social, he hypothesised that all these things should be able to be mapped together. He started plotting brain size, group size and grooming time against one another in which he came out with a nice set of relationships.
According to the good professor, he had a light bulb moment rather early one morning around 3am where he wondered what would happen if he plugged humans into the study. After doing so he got a number of 150 connections, on first glance it looked implausibly small given that most people now live in cities. It turns out the number was the typical size of hunter gatherer societies. It was also the average size of a village in the Domesday Book (A manuscript record of the “Great Survey” conducted in much of England and parts of Wales in 1086 by order of King William The Conqueror).
The number turns out to be much the same when you have better data available. An example of this is parish registers in the 18th century. County by county the average village size was once again 150, except for Kent which was 100. Professor Dunbar has no idea why it is smaller but hypothesized that perhaps there was a higher density of people with bigger brains in Kent throughout the 18th century. Unfortunately the records available can not prove or disprove this theory. A quick google search though did tell us that the population in England exploded throughout the 18th century which is contrary to the Dunbar number and the parish records that state the average size of the village was 100 people.
The professor further hypothesized that the number most likely dates back to the appearance of anatomically modern humans around 250,000 years ago and by going back in time and estimating brain size we can see community sizes on the decline. Through evolutionary strategy we evolved and adapted as a social species. Most animal species aren’t as intensely social as humans, apes and monkeys. They tend to pair up and mate for life unlike primates, who whilst they tend to mate monogamously it’s not always for life or the same partner. We guess the lesson behind that is there is something computationally demanding about maintaining close relationships over a very long period of time as we all know.
Ok so when we started out on this little exploration into the Dunbar Number we were under the assumption that it was a number based on connections you could have in your life, which is correct but we being the A Mind of Its Own team thought it was a little simpler than it has turned out to be. Like most topics we tackle it’s just raising more and more questions but slowly the pieces of the puzzle are coming together to create the picture. So before we wrap it up for another week, we’ll answer two more burning questions and for once try to tie it all together in a nice neat bow for you, rather than leaving it ambiguous and unfinished as we’ve so often done.
The first of the final two questions is can we grow the Dunbar Number? Again there is a simple answer and complicated answer. In modern times we are caught in a somewhat of a bind as community sizes were designed for hunter-gatherer type societies, when people weren’t living on top of one another. Days gone by your 150 would be scattered over a wide area but everyone shared the same 150. It made for a dense interconnected community that policed itself. You didn’t need lawyers and policemen. If you stepped out of line you more than likely had granny to answer to. For the last twenty-two years, Dunbar has been “unpacking and exploring” what that number actually means—and whether our ever-expanding social networks have done anything to change it.
The problem we face is the sheer density of people, it stretches our networks rather than keeping them compact. Most people will have friends scattered around the world who don’t know one another. This in turn means we no longer have interwoven networks, therefore leading to less well integrated societies. So the question now becomes how do we recreate that old sense of community. That’s a social engineers problem that needs to be worked around. The alternative is that we evolve bigger brains, they’d have to be much bigger and that would take a long time.
The second of our final two questions actually started out our interest in all this and we have written about technology and whether it has killed off social interaction on several occasions in the past. What role does the internet and social media play in the Dunbar Number? Like an onion there are multiple layers to this question. Can you have meaningful relationships online with the old number of 150? Well the answer is yes according to Professor Dunbar. Using the example of Twitter, we can find out what you had for breakfast from a mere tweet. Can we really get to know one another better though? Digital developments have helped us to keep in touch when in the past a relationship might have died through distance of various other circumstances, however due to our biology in the end we actually have to get together to make a relationship work.
As humans we still rely heavily on touch and as hard as the crazy science guys have tried we still have worked out how to do virtual touch, perhaps when we cracked that big nut it may lead to a true Dunbar Number? The last and final piece to our puzzle is where does choice come into all of this? Living in an interconnected world we have an abundance of choice at our fingertips. We have everything we could possibly need at the palm of our hands. Every aspect of our lives can be managed from a device and for every aspect there are multiple choices. If we look at social media and the amount of connections people have on average, most people would say they have more than the average Dunbar Number. Most of the A Mind of its Own team certainly have more than 150 followers or are following 150 people whether it be Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or any of the other social media platforms.
Ask yourself this question though, out of all those people who you follow or are following, how many of those people do you truly trust and feel an obligation towards to maintain your friendship. We can guarantee you that number won’t match the number you follow or thought. You may be able to arrange them into the various patterns of Dunbar Numbers but there will be some that float in between groups. So here’s our take on the whole Dunbar Number, the internet why the world is so ridiculously F#cked at present. Whilst many people will blame social media it was the internet that ruined the world. We (Humanbeings) thought that by providing each other with as much information as possible at our fingertips the truth would float to the top. That’s not the case our brains aren’t developed or evolved enough, if you will to compute that amount of data and work out whats fact from fiction.
The internet has provided us with freedom of choice when it comes to deciding what’s truth and what is a lie. The fact our thinking brain and feeling brain can’t make an educated decision due to the amount of data available has led us down the garden path in more ways than one. Unsubstantiated facts have have become the truth for many around the world as their feeling brains take over and that fact whilst not having any truth or in most cases science behind it, it now becomes their truth and the knock on effect is that each time they relay that fact if becomes more and more the truth they believe. Give someone too many choices whether it be selecting one festival to attend out of all them across a year, you are guaranteed that person will have some from of regret or FOMO.
In societal aspects this can be related to dating and the rise of online dating platforms like Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, Plenty of Fish and eHarmony. The fact that divorce is on the rise, polygamy and polyamory are now both acceptable in society leads one to believe we now have too much choice when it comes to finding a mate. In a society of swiping left and right, we no longer base our connections on more than just looks and are we truly getting to know people? An example of this are the boys and girls who are seeing multiple people at once as they can’t decide on just one person through fear of missing out that someone better might come along. Again we have too much choice and aren’t making the strong connections we would have made back in the day before we lived in an interconnected world. In relation to Dunbars numbers a lot of these people would start in the acquaintance group and depending on whether a relationship developed or not they could move up or out of the larger number.
On an even deeper level, there may be a physiological aspect of friendship that virtual connections can never replace.
So as we gift wrap this latest blog for you we can sum it up by saying, the internet killed the world and gave rise to anti-vaxxers, flat earthers and a lot of the internet’s other whack jobs. It’s responsible for providing a platform or soapbox to every man and its dog to play their violin and whinge their woe is me story. Or spew their hateful rhetoric across the internet. Whilst we are more interconnected than ever, we are not as interwoven as we have been throughout history and therefore our Dunbar Numbers stay relatively the same. Social media and internet dating sites and applications have given us too much choice and therefore we are not happy with the choices we are making. People no longer try to work things out due to this and sexually transmitted infections, apparently people didn’t like catching a disease are on the rise in 1st world countries. So all in all as Mark Manson put it, “Everything is Fucked” until next week do some thinking and work out who your 5 are. We know ours.
“Words are slippery, a touch is worth a 1,000 words any day”.