Friendship is an invaluable aspect of human life. As human beings, we need social interaction, and for many people, the idea of having a lot of friends is highly sought-after. The saying “the more the merrier” is commonly thrown around to say that something will be more enjoyable if lots of people are there, but is there a limit? As humans, can we only maintain a certain number of friendships and other close relationships? According to British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the answer is yes, and that number is 150.
Through studies conducted on non-human primates in the 1990s, Dunbar discovered a connection between brain size and average social group size. Looking at the average human brain, he used his findings to propose that people can comfortably maintain 150 relationships. Dunbar stated that "this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size."
Many other anthropologists have accepted "Dunbar's number" but have proposed certain conditions, such as whether an individual is an extrovert or an introvert. Others have challenged Dunbar’s number by arguing that human behavior is culturally determined and can’t be held to the same biological rules as non-human primate behavior.
So, what about technology? Has the online world changed the number of friendships we can maintain? Dunbar asserts that although technology has increased the number of people we interact with daily, this doesn’t change his findings, because these online “relationships” do not have the same meaningful quality.
It makes sense that human beings have a finite number of people we can handle as friends, but what that exact number is will continue to be up for debate as the world around us evolves.
How many friends is too many?
- An online search for the keywords “Dunbar’s number” yields approximately 26,500,000 hits on Google and 1,400 papers on Google Scholar.
- Dunbar’s number has been used to study virtual communities, especially MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) and social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace. Dunbar conducted his own study on Facebook in 2010.
- Certain organizations have really taken the claims of Dunbar’s number to heart. The Swedish Tax Authority, for example, maintains a 150-person threshold in its offices.