I was amused to read at the weekend that Prince William and Mrs Prince William-to-be have been ‘allowed’ to invite more than 1000 of their friends to the forthcoming royal wedding. Good thing too! I think these events should be kept small and intimate and priority be given to people you know and like, and if absolutely necessary, your relatives. Of course it’s physically impossible to have 1000 friends (see my post on the Dunbar number: Some of my best friends are monkeys), so I would be interested to know what constitutes a royal confidant…
In monkey-land social contact is maintained with other members of a group through social grooming. Which is a bit like going to the hairdresser, but instead of one person checking your hair for anything interesting (or possibly moving), a whole load of people give it the once over – social groups of this sort forming little cliques within wider monkey, or actually to be more accurate, primate society. Now for the interesting bit: the number of group members an individual primate can track seems to have an upper limit; which in turn appears to be related to the volume of the brain’s neocortex.
Primates, brains, neocortex? You can probably guess what’s coming next. A clever British anthropologist called Robin Dunbar has popped the data for 38 primate genera into a statistics programme and come up with a figure for us humans – that’s the total number of people with which we can maintain stable social relationships. And the answer is a mean group size of 148*, or as a rule-of-thumb, 150. This has now passed into folklore, sort of, being regularly referred to as the Dunbar Number. Fantastic! Fancy having a number named after you. But back to the point:
What does this tell us? Putting aside that other anthropologists have produced competing numbers, for example there’s the Bernard-Killworth at 290; it can help us to understand why groups may or may not work. Think about the size of groups in businesses or military units. Perhaps it’s no surprise that an Army company contains up to 200 soldiers; and that the Swedish tax people have taken it to heart and set the maximum number of people in an office at 150; or indeed that it was picked up by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, The Tipping Point, and forms the core of his argument on social dynamics. So maybe, just maybe, it gives us a clue, whatever the ‘magic’ number, as to why very large year groups in schools don’t seem to work; or for that matter large divisions within very large corporations; or large groups of humans doing all sorts of things.
And what of social networking? Dunbar himself is researching Facebook, and possibly his number is a defence for those who cannot claim to have 500 friends, or 1000, or 10000, or whatever’s the ‘going rate’. Something that younger, and some of the not so young Facebook users feel pressured to have. But then Facebook is like collecting stamps, people seem to feel a compulsion to try to acquire the full set!
*If you’re interested in the stats, at the 95% confidence level, the range is from 100 to 230.
Malcolm Gladwell (2000). The Tipping Point – How Little Things Make a Big Difference. Abacus
Photo credit: Michael Elliott/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
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Posted by Mark Parkinson