There Are Limits to Socializing

It has been hypothesized that the upper limit for our network we can keep in our minds is roughly 150 people, and this also springs from evolutionary patterns of behaviors. Before humans domesticated livestock and learned about agriculture and cultivating harvests, we were largely nomadic tribes, and these tribes naturally sustained a size of roughly 150 people. Obviously, this has changed in modern times, and it’s no small wonder that it’s been a confusing, anxious, and even depressing time for many of us, as the software for our brains hasn’t been updated in a few thousand years.

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The Limits of Our Sociality

While social interaction has been the driving force behind the evolution of our brains, we do still have limits on how much socializing we can handle. Even the most extroverted person in the world has a finite amount of brain power and energy to socialize, meaning that we simply aren’t capable of socializing forever or with everyone.

Robin Dunbar, the same scientist responsible for the social brain hypothesis, consulted the anthropological record in search of what was eventually named Dunbar’s number—the cognitive limit to the number of people with whom it’s possible for an individual to maintain stable social relationships. In this case, relationships are classified as stable when the given individual knows who every other individual is and how they relate to each of the other members of the group.

Dunbar proposed that an average human can comfortably maintain only about 150 stable relationships at any given time. Makes you rethink the number of people you are connected to on social media, doesn’t it?

The number 150 isn’t actually considered precise for all humans, but rather the average of the spectrum of possibilities for stable relationships that ranges from one to two hundred. It’s generally thought that going too far over two hundred will become unstable unless it is countered by the implementation of more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms. This number also doesn’t include past social relationships that are no longer active or short-term acquaintances.

But how did Dunbar come to land on 150 people?

Well, he started off with the assumption that the current size of the average human neocortex became standard sometime around 250,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene epoch. Dunbar then went on to search anthropological and ethnographical literature looking for census-like information for various hunter-gather societies, hoping to find an accurate approximation of typical group sizes in those ancient societies. He found many examples of groups approximately 150 members large—from Neolithic farming villages and typical units of professional armies in Roman antiquity before the common era, all the way through time to modern Hutterite settlements originating in the 16th century.

Dunbar noted that ancient societies could be broken up into three categories based on group sizes: small bands of thirty to fifty people, cultural lineage groups of one to two hundred people, and tribes with anywhere between five hundred and twenty-five hundred members.

But 150 remained the most useful number, as a series of other values for modern human social capabilities were derived from it. There is actually a formula for roughly estimating all of the other numbers in the series, a “rule of three.”

Multiplying the Dunbar number by three gives us an approximation of our total number of acquaintances, and multiplying that number by three again provides the absolute limit on our social relationships—the number of people for whom we can put a name to a face at a given time.

Dividing 150 by three, meanwhile, gives us the fifty friends whom we are at least somewhat close with. Doing so again will then give us our fifteen to twenty confidants—the friends whom we can turn to for sympathy and support. Finally, dividing by three once more approximately gives us our most intimate friends or family members, the people who have the strongest influence on our personalities. It’s a very real illustration of whom you should focus your attention and time on—and why you should avoid spreading yourself too thin.

While the compositions of all of these groups in the series are fluid, the overall size generally remains static. People might be moving from one level to another—or out of your social periphery altogether—but each void in your personal social hierarchy will be filled by someone new.

We often don’t realize how systematic our social relationships are, but reflecting on the Dunbar numbers and how they relate to you personally can be quite revealing. Imagine you have a friend group with eight members, and you all hang out with each other on a regular basis. Regardless of how much you like each member of the group, it’s practically certain that only a few of the group members are your best friends and confidants. It’s great to be part of a big and diverse group, but there’s just no getting around the fact that we all have limited social energy and cognition.

One of the ways that being mindful about social limitations can help you is when it comes to jealousy. Given how important social status and success are to humans, it’s not surprising that we can feel jealous about how friends, as well as romantic partners, choose to spend their time and social resources when it’s not according to our wishes.

Our neocortices aren’t going to start growing again anytime soon, though, so the healthier route is to understand and accept that every person has a right to allocate their limited energy and cognition however they see fit. We can only control our own choices and decisions, and having expectations about what other people do doesn’t make us any happier or healthier.

At the same time, it can be difficult for many of us to spend our own time in the ways we actually want to. The series of Dunbar’s numbers seems to support the idea of having the highest quality relationships possible over a high quantity of them. Ultimately, we all have limits on how many close relationships we can maintain at a given time, and with that in mind, it certainly makes sense to pick our friends carefully and spend our time how we really want to. We are social creatures, to an extent.

Socializing, regardless of how you feel about it, is a fundamental part of being human. It was the driving force behind the evolution and growth of our brains—the thing that enabled us to create modern civilization as we know it today. Technology has now connected us to more people and across greater distances than ever before, yet loneliness and depression are on the rise. It will be up to each of us as individuals, therefore, to learn healthy social practices to adapt to our rapidly changing environments.

But as our technology continues to change, our brains still remain much the same as they have been for hundreds of thousands of years. Therefore, there is perhaps no better method to adapt your social skills to the modern day than to understand the fundamentals of social intelligence—to know which behaviors lead to isolation and depression, and which ones can improve your social satisfaction and fulfillment.

Man is a social animal. So much so, that there are scientific bases for socialization as the foundation of human evolution and the negative consequences of depriving a person of it. Our social nature can be traced back to our prehistory. The development of complex social systems—of communication and socialization—define significantly our behavior as a species today.

Having a wide social network and being highly regarded within it not only reaps practical benefits, but is also a foundation of one’s overall well-being. Having an active social lifestyle prevents mental deterioration among aged groups. It also avoids prolonged loneliness that might just end up becoming a full-blown depression.

Nonetheless, there is no such thing as a socialize-all-you-want lifestyle. There is a limit to the number of people with whom we can accommodate meaningful and authentic interaction. Robin Dunmar pegs it to 150. This is different from a person’s most intimate relationships, which comprises a much smaller number.

This makes us think about our multiple social media lives. It makes us consider the possibly hundreds to thousands of contacts we maintain online. Despite today’s convenience of online hyper socialization, we are nowhere near happier. Rather, data shows that we are getting more and more unhappy as a population.

As we go further into the book, we will cast a light on different aspects of our social life using scientific and anthropological lenses. Our goal is to explore how we can maximize what we know and what we have in order to achieve a high-quality, beneficial social status. We will start off in the next chapter by unpacking the idea of popularity.