Dunbar’s number

Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. 

This number was first proposed in the 1990s by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size. By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, he proposed that humans can comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships. There is some evidence that brain structure predicts the number of friends one has, though causality remains to be seen. Dunbar explained it informally as “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 theorised that “this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this, in turn, limits group size […] the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained”. On the periphery, the number also includes past colleagues, such as high school friends, with whom a person would want to reacquaint themselves if they met again. Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 250, with a commonly used value of 150.

Primatologists have noted that, owing to their highly social nature, primates must maintain personal contact with the other members of their social group, usually through social grooming. Such social groups function as protective cliques within the physical groups in which the primates live. The number of social group members a primate can track appears to be limited by the volume of the neocortex. This suggests that there is a species-specific index of the social group size, computable from the species’ mean neocortical volume.

In 1992, Dunbar used the correlation observed for non-human primates to predict a social group size for humans. Using a regression equation on data for 38 primate genera, Dunbar predicted a human “mean group size” of 148 (casually rounded to 150)

Dunbar then compared this prediction with observable group sizes for humans.

Dunbar searched the anthropological and ethnographical literature for census-like group size information for various hunter–gatherer societies. Dunbar noted that the groups fell into three categories—small, medium and large, equivalent to bandscultural lineage groups and tribes—with respective size ranges of 30–50, 100–200 and 500–2500 members each. Dunbar’s surveys of village and tribe sizes also appeared to approximate this predicted value, including

  • 150 as the estimated size of a Neolithic farming village;
  • 150 as the splitting point of Hutterite settlements;
  • 200 as the upper bound on the number of academics in a discipline’s sub-specialisation;
  • 150 as the basic unit size of professional armies in Roman antiquity and in modern times since the 16th century; and
  • 150 as the basic unit size of notions of appropriate company size.
  • And well, probably Agile Release Train (ART) in SAFe, which is a long-term team of team with a maximum size of 150 people.

In dispersed societies, individuals will meet less often and will thus be less familiar with each other, so group sizes should be smaller in consequence.” Thus, the 150-member group would occur only because of absolute necessity—because of intense environmental and economic pressures. Language may have allowed societies to remain cohesive, while reducing the need for physical and social intimacy. This result is confirmed by the mathematical formulation of the social brain hypothesis, that showed that it is unlikely that increased brain size would have led to large groups without the kind of complex communication that only language allows.

A recent study has suggested that Dunbar’s number is applicable to online social networks and communication networks (mobile phone). E.g. Participants of the European career-oriented online social network XING who have about 157 contacts reported the highest level of job offer success, which also supports Dunbar’s number of about 150.

Please use pagination link below to navigate to the next story

Subscribe
Notify of
guest

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x