In the 1990’s, British Anthropologist Robin Dunbar discovered a correlation between primate brain size and their average social group size. His research led him to suggest a cognitive limit to the number of people we can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which you know what’s happening in their lives and you know how each of them relate to others in your social circle . His conclusion was a limit of 150 stable relationships, excluding acquaintances, or former relationships that have slipped away.
If we add in acquaintances AND the relationships we once had, this number gets a lot bigger and is largely dependant on your ability to store and access long term memory.
Has technology and social networks inflated Dunbar’s number?
A lot has changed since this theory was established, thanks in part to technology, social networks and a shift in how we interact with one another. New forms of “peripheral social awareness” are being studied by social scientists. Regular users of social websites and apps seem to have an almost omnipresent knowledge of the inner workings of their social circle. In effect, two friends who regularly follow one another’s digital information can already be aware of each other’s lives without actually being physically present to have a conversation. But the data doesn’t seem to disprove the theory:
The outstandingly high average for 18-24 is understandable. If you’re in this age bracket you’ve grown up with Facebook and gone through a school system on the platform. This is a period in your life when you’re meeting tons of people and social etiquette calls for you to be “friended” by a lot of acquaintances that aren’t actually relationships. What I see here is an accurate snapshot in the 45-54 age bracket that includes maybe a hundred real relationships and family members with some spill over in the form of old friends and S/O’s from their formative years that looked them up when they joined.
This is far from an academic experiment but I’m not trying to paint a narrative, before I started this article I was convinced I was going to find proof that we are now capable of MORE relationships thanks in part to technology, it just doesn’t seem to be the case.
Average number of followers per Twitter user: 208
Average number of followers per teenage Instagram user in the United States: 150 (survey)
Average number of followers per Snapchat user: Unknown! (hopefully Evan Spielberg releases the stats soon)
So perhaps Dunbar’s number is not increasing, but if the “average” number of connections on these networks is so close to, or past Dunbar’s number does it indicate we’re all pushing ourselves to the limit of what we can possibly maintain?
Are the websites and apps we use today helping the average person reach Dunbar’s perceived ceiling?
Some of the companies we’ve spoken to gave us some insight into how many accounts their account managers can maintain. Through a process of trial and error one determined the perfect number of customers allocated to an individual account manager is 15-20.
By all accounts, these are relationships, these 15-20 customers fill 40 hours of work per week for the account manager. Any more than this and the accounts start to slip, and customer satisfaction suffers. This could indicate a high workload to customer ratio, but it could also tell us a lot about how many relationships employees are willing to sacrifice for work. In this case it’s up to 20 personal relationships.
We live increasingly complicated social lives as we age. What was once simply family, turns to friends, teachers, partner’s friends, colleagues, industry contacts, children, children’s friends, children’s teachers … It’s safe to say your number is like a bucket, with a hole in the bottom that sees relationships fall through and a faucet at the top that is brining new relationships in.
Ultimately, Dunbar’s number needs to be expanded given the modern condition and new mediums by which we curate our relationships. We need to classify a new generation of relationship “states” based on a spectrum that takes us from deeply engaged relationships to un-engaged acquaintance. Stay tuned for that article and more on this topic!