How Big Should Your Tribe Be?



Dunbar's Number: How Big Should Your Tribe Be?


If you're an extrovert like me (and I'm by no means advocating that as an ideal way of living), you know a lot of people, know how to make small talk into big talk with strangers, value connection, and might even have trouble weighing the value of one connection to another in social terms outside of close friends and family. Many of us have had to seriously reevaluate the importance of our connections as corona virus has made social media the panacea of communication and entertainment. It's anyone guess what those connections will mean once we're 100% free to roam about and socialize (some countries are almost there, others, not so much).

What if I told you there was genetic disposition to how many people humans should have in their social circles and that many of us are pushing that number or unkowingly outsmarting it with technology? Well British anthropologist Robin Dunbar seems to think so.

According to Dunbar, human beings are only wired to have 150 people in their tribe at any given time. Through neuroimaging and intense observation of primates, he and his team concluded that as "Dunbar's Number." His studies suggest that the size of the neo-cortex in the brain (which relates to language and cognition) in relationship to the size of the body determines this as the extent to which a human being's social circle can physiolgically withstand. Of course, he also applied this number to other data around human psychology, history, and anthropology which still brought him to 150. (Here's a more detailed description of the study https://www.researchgate.net/publication/301879177_Calling_Dunbar%27s_Numbers)

Personally, I'm not sure what to make of this as a be all end all to the human social system. As I have discussed before in the wise words of the great Obi Wan Kenobi "Only a sith speaks in absolutes." But it's definately worth some serious contemplation and should lead us all to question just how thin we're spreading ourselves to those around us.

It's been my experience, and I know I'm not alone here, that people with a lot of friends are not necessarily the happiest people I know. How many people do we need to interact with regularly for personal or professional reasons whether it be on social media or in the flesh? How easily can we be with ourselves? How much of ourselves can we use to show up for one another?

Tupac Shakur once said "People without a lot of friends are the realest people you will ever meet." It's true, because how could you be that real with so many people in your circles when you have to maintain meaningful and sincere connections and still be there for yourself? I guess we all have to figure out to what extent our social circles are healthy and toxic, not just because of the people in them, but because of how taxing it can acually be. Healthy socializing releases oxytocin, the "love hormone" produced by the hypothalamus from positive social interaction. It's particularly strong during bonding with one's children and loved ones. Conversley, cortisol is the steroid released from the adrenal gland in response to stress, which is not optimal in a healthy functioning body if it's released often. Your body will release this once you're overwhelmed, and this can easily happen from having to please more people than you have the capacity for, which, happens quite regularly for many of us.

The more people in your circles, the higher the chance for a negative interaction, and the more stress you acquire. So I'm not sure if I believe Dunbar's number as an exact science, but I do believe we need to be more careful about how many people we let into our lives if we want to be happy and healthy. I wish I'd undertood this when I was a young man because it would've saved me a world of grief. So enjoy that conversation with a stranger in a bar, or that chat on FB, or the friend of a friend who wants to meet for lunch, but please, check in with your boundaries and your limits. Espcially now that many of us are able to go out and socialize again in crowded places.

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