Dunbar Numbers: Grooming, Gossip and Your Social Relationships (Lifehack)

How many friends can you really have?

Is there really a maximum number of meaningful friendships we can have?

Now technically speaking how many people can you potentially maintain a stable social relationship with? Just to clarify by social we mean in person not on Twitter or Facebook.

These are the relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. Similar to a small tribe. 


According to Anthropologist Robin Dunbar this can vary between 150 – 250 people. After numerous studies of Primates,  nomadic tribes, and historical military groupings the final number of maximum stable relationships never reached a common consensus among the researchers.


Dunbar theorized that the limit of people we can have truly stable and meaningful relationships with is a direct function of our neocortex– which is responsible for our cognitive abilities. Damage to or disorders of the neocortex can develop neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s, Dementia, and long term memory loss.


Therefore according to Dunbar the size of the neocortex is directly related to the total number of relationships an individual can effectively have, which is 150-250. This number also includes past relationships, such as colleagues, teachers, and high school friends, with whom a person would like to reacquaint themselves with.


Dunbar’s number have become an area of interest in anthropology, evolutionary psychology, statistics, and business management. For example, developers of social software are interested in knowing more about Dunbar’s Numbers because the developers need to know the size of the real life social networks their software needs to take into account.


Further in 1996 Harvard University Press published Robin Dunbar’s book Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language.


The book presents an argument that gossip is a vocal equivalent of manual grooming – in primates grooming is a form of bonding where individuals harness relationships by grooming each other in order to maintain their alliances.


The basic principle is you scratch my back I scratch yours


Once humans start to develop larger brains and start to live in increasingly larger groups, manual grooming was too time consuming and the audience was much larger, so we developed a cheaper medium to groom and that was vocal sounds. Eventually this vocal grooming evolved into a language, initially it was in the form of “gossip”.


This study has a direct impact on  Entrepreneurs and Creatives because it is more than just the exact number of friends you can have, it’s more about being selective and initially identifying your target audience, customers, and clients precisely vs being the everything to everyone approach.


There seems to be a Relationship Opportunity Cost

Now we are aware that we can only handle certain numbers of relationships effectively. It might sound a bit harsh but this study suggests picking and choosing relationships, individuals, clients,  audience or customers very wisely. Maybe this is your time for a “relationship audit”.

Try to identify customers, clients, audience, friends, who influence your life in a positive manner. Those who provide constructive feedback, they help you move forward as opposed to holding you back.

Also, be mindful of the diversity of talent that you surround yourself with. Just like a team or any good machine, we need different talents, strengths and skills – I read a blog by Steven Johnson that mentions people are like spare parts and different parts of different shapes come together to build the best machines or systems.


So, for example in a group if you have a doctor, an accountant, a social media consultant, an HR person, an engineer, and an entrepreneur you will find diversity of ideas that make any organization or team successful.

Give it a try and do a Relationship Audit to identify who is adding value and who is not.







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