The Significance of Dunbar’s Number in Our Modern Social Environment

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The Significance of Dunbar’s Number in Our Modern Social Environment

When it comes to testing human capabilities, the most popular measurement is the IQ test but not the Dunbar's number / Photo by: pathdoc via Shutterstock

 

When it comes to measuring human capabilities, IQ scores and the like have become popular. One value that has been thrown around and gained attention is Dunbar’s number.

What exactly is it, and what impact does it have in our social relationships with others?

 

Measuring Dunbar’s Number

Dunbar’s number is a concept that declares that each person can only manage a specific number of relationships. It was coined by the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who stated that the number is only about 150 on average, with some people having a larger or smaller cognitive capacity. But what significance does this number actually hold in society and in our personal lives?

Dunbar’s number is a concept that declares that each person can only manage a specific number of relationships / Photo by: Jirapong Manustrong via Shutterstock

 

Dunbar’s number can be broken down into specific types of relationships. Most persons have about 5 close friends, and about 15 good friends. Another 50 of the number would be family or family-like relationships, while the rest would be work associates or friendly acquaintances.

With this in mind, it can be easy to see why the limit is at 150. Day by day, many of these relationships must be maintained by spending time together, communicating, and engaging in social activities. Some time taken to spend with one person will end up reducing time spent with another, and thus it becomes important to properly balance and maintain these relationships, as explained by the Association for Talent Development.

Social Environments

Back in the day, a person who was asked how many friends they had would likely only count those they had regular contact with or whom they had strong relations to. However, the modern-day landscape has changed, and technology has made it incredibly easy for people to stay in touch even if they are not close relations. We could easily message a person if we have their email address or social media name and ask them of something when the need arises.

While it seems then that this would effectively increase the average Dunbar number, it does not. While one could have thousands of casual contacts that were met with once or twice, meaningful relationships still stay in the 150s. The proximity effect, as stated by Penn State University.edu, dictates that people gain familiarity with one another through physical proximity or physical closeness. One can then begin to have a “personal like” for another based on shared experiences. This, surprisingly, can also apply to people we meet or contact online. Psychological nearness still helps us form bonds with others despite not having the physical proximity that was researched long ago.

Back in the day, a person who was asked how many friends they had would likely only count those they had regular contact with or whom they had strong relations to but today, thanks to technology, it has been changed / Photo by: Jacob Lund via Shutterstock

 

However, just because people have the potential to become closer without physical proximity does not mean that every friend you have on Facebook can be a part of your Dunbar number. Despite the far reach of social media and the internet, a person can only significantly care about a certain number of people and maintain those relationships at a healthy and acceptable rate.

The problem with social media and Dunbar’s number then comes when people are forced into maintaining relationships when they are over their limit. Forced to keep in touch with far-off relatives or officemates can breed the negative effects of the proximity effect, which causes one to dislike a person rather than like them.

Visualizing Others’ Thoughts

According to Dunbar’s research, there is a correlation between the size of one’s brain, specifically the frontal lobe, and a person’s measure of “intentionality.” Intentionality is described as the ability to understand other people’s intentions. It means that while we have our own thoughts and opinions, we acknowledge and can better understand the thoughts of others and accept that they may be vastly different from our own. It becomes a measure of our ability to create a mental representation of others’ opinions and motivations in our minds.

People who are vegans who can see and accept the decisions of others to eat meat or people who are on one political party but can visualize the thought processes that would land one into another party are able to craftily and flexibly use the information they have to arrive at these conclusions. This requires a large amount of cognitive ability and is referred to Dunbar’s researchers as a good grasp of “intention.”

 

Improved Executive Functions

It is these cognitive abilities that play a large part in social functions, which likely means a higher Dunbar’s number. It doesn’t just mean having plenty of follows on your social media page but relates to creating more meaningful connections with social peers. It has also been seen that higher intentionality correlates to having better executive functions in different tasks, whether they be vocational, academic or work-related, according to Psychology Today. Such include pre-planning, delaying gratification, performing important but boring tasks, and even thinking before speaking or acting. Intentionality can help one manage rivalries, balance group dynamics, and internalize social norms and expectations.

Considering difficulties in maintaining relationships in our modern and stressful society, one need not force themselves to conform to their Dunbar’s number and should focus on treasuring relationships they currently have.

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