Dealing with Dunbar’s Number

Dealing with Dunbar’s Number

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I am taking December off. My mind has reached its current limit this year and I need some time to integrate all I’ve been exposed to. It really does interest me whenever I hit a new mental limit, since it focuses me on getting beyond it.

I am a life hacker, so I continually look for ways to optimise and improve what can be done. Yet my current cognitive limit is properly blown! This is in spite of me jettisoning many things that used to be in my life, like TV and reading the news, and despite me learning to clear my mind with meditation and healthier living.

One of my main challenges has been the number of new relationships in my life. I have always had a large network, but this year my network has effectively doubled, gone global, and deepened.

I am not into superficial relationships. They don’t actually make me happy. You can end up knowing a lot of people, but not really knowing anyone at all. I am the sort of person who likes to invest heavily in everyone I spend time with, yet the challenge is how to do this in a way that is both sustainable in the long term and allows my life to have greater impact.

I am finding it a challenge to mentally process all the relationships I have at the moment, and I feel that the depth of connection I can maintain might have already started to suffer in some cases. If that trend continues, then it could lead to some problems for me in the future.

People talk about scalability, but scaling relationships just isn’t human. I have scaled businesses before, but there is a point at which scale disconnects you from the people that you serve and you end up building a big machine. And machines just don’t make people as happy as other human beings do. It’s just not the way our brains are built.

So, the challenges I set myself now are:

  • How can I make as much impact as possible in the world, without scaling?

  • How can I keep a manageable number of deep human relationships, whilst impacting many more lives in the process?

  • How can I sufficiently serve everyone I meet, without using up all my mental bandwidth?

One trend is working for me: the power of individuals and small groups is rising exponentially. This means that you don’t need many people to change the world these days. What was only in the realm of large companies or nation states can now be achieved by ever smaller group sizes, through new technology.

However, there is one trend that isn’t working for me: Dunbar’s number. This is the limit on the number of stable social relationships one can cognitively maintain: the average often quoted is 150 relationships. This number commonly appears in any analysis of communities losing cohesion and breaking up into smaller groups. It stems from our hunter-gatherer days, but is still very much relevant in our everyday life. Many people are actually using this number to great effect, to limit organisation and group sizes to maximise effectiveness. It is one of the main reasons why outsourcing works so well.

So, on the surface, it means that I should build my personal plan around having only 150 rich relationships in my life. Now, that seems quite a challenge, given what I want to do in the world.

The first thing I do whenever I come across a so-called limit is to question it. I have studied outliers for much of my life, and I am obsessed with achievement well beyond the average. So I am interested in outliers who maintain relationships beyond the accepted limit, and in how they achieve depth in those relationships.

If you actually look further into Dunbar’s work, rather than an optimal number, it advocates a range: typically between 100 to 230 relationships. So this does allow for other variables than just the capacity of our brains to process and store the information.

There is much more to learn on this, and I sense that this number is actually rising as we evolve as a species. The average number of relationships on Facebook is something like 190, which is at the upper end of Dunbar’s range, which suggests that technology is already having a significant impact on the number of relationships we can maintain. As technology continues to reduce the administrative burden of maintaining and deepening relationships, it will allow Dunbar’s number to grow, over time.

This is one of the main reasons I continue to blog and use social media, and why I have invested in the team I have developed around me. It all enables me to deepen my connections without the associated cognitive overload. Despite hitting my limit and seeing that I need to change the way I do things, I know I can maintain many more, and deeper, connections than I used to. As I have evolved, my own Dunbar’s number has risen as my skills, technologies and processes have improved. Sadly, I am not evolving fast enough to sustain a high quality of relationships in my ever-increasing network!

Dunbar’s evolutionary explanation for our current cognitive and social limit is that humans’ learning to talk allowed us to maintain much larger group sizes than our primate cousins. So the group size we maintain is directly linked to our evolution as a species and the technology we use  to communicate and store data  – if one assumes that our brains and our method of communication are evolutionary technologies.

With this logic, our collective Dunbar’s number is set to grow as rapidly as we can technologically evolve. Much as we have delegated the storage of knowledge to the internet (I see it as an extension to my brain), social media has allowed an explosion in the number of connections that we can maintain – superficially, at least. I  think social media is still very embryonic because it isn’t all that human yet!

As the way we connect online becomes increasingly more human, new interface by interface, perhaps our brains will learn to adapt to maintaining larger, richer and ever deepening networks. As technology accelerates and we revolutionise our communication beyond language and into the realm of opening up our thoughts to each other, a whole new world of interconnectedness becomes possible.

That, to me, makes for a fascinating future – if our technologically-fuelled Dunbar number grows at a faster rate than the human population is growing, then one day we might all end up as one interconnected human mind. Now isn’t that an interesting – and maybe slightly scary – thought?

In the meantime, I am going back to the drawing board in terms of how to manage my relationships. Until they upgrade my brain to enable it to deal with more human relationships, I will always need to keep my tribe manageable, whilst still going out to live my bold dreams.

I would love to know your experiences around Dunbar’s number; or, if you are only just aware if its existence, what it means to you. How do you see it impact on the world around you? How do you, or will you, use it to good effect? How do you, or will you, innovate around it? Let me know in the comments section below.


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  1. I completely relate with this. In the push to expand my learning and relationships, I hit a wall and can’t figure out how to create the space and meaning I want to put into these experiences and relationships. I love that you’re wrestling with that idea. I have seen Dunbars number play out in various business settings…as soon as I hit 230 customers in any business…the structure I how I communicate and connect with them has to change or another person has to be added to the team. It’s the only way to really serve them best. Same is true in personal relationships except that number gets much lower for me. I do think social media and conversations like this one allow us to ‘scale’ a bit and increase our impact. I see people all the time who I didn’t realize we’re following me and keeping tabs. We never interact and yet I’m having a direct impact on their lives. That feels good even though it also feels strange. So, I guess relationships are changing…and I think transparency and trust are going to have to be at the heart of even attempting to maintain these types of connections with each other. Which means a lot more vulnerability, too. Maybe we only talk once a year, but if the tie is there, we are still able to contribute some level of value in each other’s life….to step in and assist. Simultaneously, we have to have that short list of relationships that allow for deep conversations and feeding our souls in order to keep our spark flying.

  2. Macolm Gladwell highlights 50 as a harmonious number for a corporate environment, or multiples thereof in separate buildings – a bit like a beehive that functions best with a critical mass but swarms when numbers are excessive.

    Perhaps choose the core community based on those who take the time to read your blog.


  3. Certainly those are the people I go deeper with in less time! Reading my work is the fastest way to get I into my head…

  4. Tony Trenker says

    A bigger number is not necessarily more effective for realising your personal plan. I heard of this guy who changed the world with just 12 followers. And their plan became even bigger than his.

    It’s not who you know, it’s what they do.

    • This is certainly the way that I think about it Tony. It is also why I spend a lot of time in the Singularity University network. They look to create impact at billion people scale.

  5. Tony Trenker says

    Yes I love the Singularity Hub too. I have a background in AI and started my Ph.D. on a natural language interface / knowledge base way back in the late ’80s. If I had about £2M I’d be able to realise some of my AI ideas; such as a ‘knowledge economy’ to empower the masses!

  6. Great info. Lucky me I came across your blog by accident (stumbleupon).
    I have saved it for later!

  7. “…our communication beyond language and into the realm of opening up our thoughts to each other, a whole new world of interconnectedness becomes possible.”

    collaborating on Sisyphean tasks

    • My experience with multi-cultural participants over thirty years has granted me confidence, by assuring me that it’s inevitable, for us to extend Dunbar’s number without limit – by shifting attention from who we objectively ‘measure’ our ‘selves’ to be, to sharing undivided attention together (which is indistinguishable from unconditional love and widespread mutual understanding) wherein we come to inseparably know our ‘selves’ to be a single consciousness rather than its physical, conceptual, emotional, and intuited secondary by-products. The challenge is making this shared way of knowing who and what we are widely-felt through films, social media and shared experience(s). All of Nature already knows how to be awake as one and many, where now it’s our turn to awaken to what Nature has in store for ‘all of us’ – as Love its self/Self.

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