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Why You’ve Probably Got Too Many Facebook Friends: What the Dunbar Number tells us about Social Networks and Life

Updated on May 27, 2011

There’s always an ever so slight air of uneasiness that creeps into a conversation when the issue of facebook friends is raised.

Or more specifically, how many facebook friends you actually have.

As a late 20’s (or is it pre-30’s?) facebook user, i’m beginning to get a little intimidated by the volume of friends my peers in the generation below me have. Friend lists in the high hundreds and low thousands seem to be reasonably commonplace in the late teens and early 20’s age groups.

Thinking myself quite the social butterfly for having assembled a network of about 117 friends (at the time of writing), I feel proud of the little community i’ve built - a microcosm of my past, and most things that matter in my life. Though when I see friends with contacts in excess of several thousand, I do begin to curl up and regress into a social caterpillar.

But how many of these friends are actually meaningful?

The trend it seems is towards ever increasing numbers of “friends” – connections of increasing volume, though decreasing authenticity.

Or, more to the point, how many friendships can a human being meaningfully have?

Fortunately, an obscure field of research – evolutionary anthropology – has the answer. Being directly related to primates, both our physiology and behaviour tend to mimic – to an almost absurd degree – that of primates.

I challenge anyone to sit in a hall full of applauding people and come to any other conclusion. Bashing your hands together to make noise and yelling to show your approval? Puh-lease. Monkeys seem less our cousin and more of a forgotten sibling who gave up shaving. I guess they call it “going ape” for a reason.

Monkey business aside though, these similarities are great enough to allow us to draw conclusions about the meaning and behaviour of our own species simply through observing that of our more intelligent cousins.

With a career spanning decades, and multitudes of awards to his name, he's one of the world's great thespian wonders. And Clint's not that bad either.
With a career spanning decades, and multitudes of awards to his name, he's one of the world's great thespian wonders. And Clint's not that bad either.

Cue the Dunbar number.

Robin Dunbar likes to watch.

Well, he likes to watch monkeys specifically.

That qualifier hasn’t really helped normalise what Robin does for a living, but all that matters to you is that he is a specialist in primate behaviour. It turns out that watching monkeys (and no, giving them a cigar or watching Every Which Way But Loose repeatedly doesn’t count) combined with a little knowledge of monkey (and human) biology, has produced a startling insight into the way we relate to the people around us –our own social networks.

There is a limit, it turns out, to the number of “friends” – or relationships - we can meaningfully have. And it’s hardwired into the biology of our brain.

The limit? It’s 150.

How did he arrive at this number? The “Dunbar number” as it has become known is a function of the way in which our brains are wired. While observing the grooming behaviour of monkeys – which it turns out plays the role of bonding a community together, not just keeping the monkeys shiny – Robin was struck by the fact that only a limited number of monkeys can groom – and thus bond – with the rest of their group. That is, an infinite amount of monkeys cannot bond with an infinite amount of other monkeys. There is a limit – and it’s caused by both the size and make up of our brains.

Primate-related social groups from around the planet – and indeed across cultures – conform to this with alarming regularity. Towns, villages, cities. Even where the number of people in a network exceeds the Dunbar number, smaller subcultures and subgroups spring up and achieve equilibrium in proximity to this number.

As a facebook user with less than 150 friends at the time of writing this, it’s hard not to feel vindicated. I keep a close watch on my friends list, and generally carefully vet it for people that I either don’t know well enough, or have not spoken to in a long time. It seems as though my inner monkey was at work, sifting through the chaff.

So don’t feel bad when next comparing friend numbers with another person. For if they list themselves as publicly having more than about 150 friends, then there’s a very real possibility they don’t really know – much less care – about all of them.

But no – I will not pick through your hair for mites – even if you friend me on facebook.

Other ways to use the Dunbar number in your life...

Do you manage a company? The Dunbar number demonstrates that there is an effective physical limit to the number of meaningful connections we can make as humans. If part of your corporate strategy is to build a distinct and meaningful internal company culture, try incorporating the Dunbar number into your strategy. Can manufacturing plants be built to be staffed around this number? Can the organisation as a whole be built around this number? Project-specific tiger teams?

Do you own a small business? Instead of trying to produce an industrial number of superficial connections with an entire global market, try tightening your focus to the Dunbar number. What would happen to your business if you only had 150 clients? Not just clients, but raving fans? Give up talking to everyone – it’s been done. It’s boring. If you’re talking to everyone, then you’re not talking to me – i’m going to tune out. Assemble your tribe and talk directly to them. Go for depth. Meaning. Authenticity.  In an age where attention is the rarest commodity of all, these are about the only way you’ll hold your customer’s attention for any meaningful period of time.

The Dunbar number is an incredibly interesting observation about human biology and its relationship to how we form societies. It’s a prime example of the way good theory mimics reality, and compounds upon itself to give us new insights to improve our reality.

How else can you use the Dunbar number – in your own life, or society at large? Tell us all below.


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    • Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

      Pamela Kinnaird W 7 years ago from Maui and Arizona

      Hey, this was interesting. I'm definitely not of the group that believes we are related to primates, but I do enjoy the information here. And I do think even 150 friends is too high. Who can really be a good friend to 150 people? 70? Maybe. Good article.