Friends in a modern world

In the words of Homer Simpson “Every time I learn something new it pushes some old stuff out of my brain”.

Brains do have a finite capacity; we can only manage a certain amount of detail before we start to lose clarity and focus. In terms of society, it turns out there are well-defined limits to the number of friends and acquaintances the average person can maintain. This limit is 150.

The evidence

If you look at tribe size of prehistoric hunter gathers, they were often around 25-30 people, but those communities of 150 had greater longevity. This same number of 150 occurs in 11th Century English villages, military organisations, and more recently in offices, factories, and university campuses.

The Devon village where I grew up in the 1960s had an electoral role of 207. I knew everyone by sight, but I did struggle with a few names even though I helped deliver the milk.

A British anthropologist Robin Dunbar called this magic number of 150 – Dunbar’s number.

So what?

The word friend has been misappropriated by social media. How can anyone have 10,000 “friends” on Facebook?

Dunbar also recognised that his number was not the full story, it could be broken down further. If you had 150 meaningful contacts, 50 might be friends and 5 loved ones. The range could be extended further to 500 acquaintances, and 1500 people you might be aware of.

People migrate in and out of these categories, with new contacts slotting into their layers.

Extroverts tend to have a larger network and spread themselves more thinly across their friends, while introverts concentrate on a smaller pool of closer contacts. And women generally have slightly more contacts within the closest layers.

My take on this

Weird (Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic) societies put plenty of pressure on spare brain capacity. We are constantly connected, business and home life become blurred.

As a result, we subconsciously manage this capacity. Personally, I have many business contacts and I prefer to deal directly with these contacts rather than delegate to others in my business. Does this result in fewer contacts outside of work? Of course, it does; and I imagine that many people will recognise and agree with this.

Like most people I categorise and use my social media contacts by interest, they are “virtual friends” whom I share interest with. However, these virtual friends bring depth and understanding and of course some do join my magic 150.

It is important to recognise and use the available brain capacity to best effect. Do this and both home and work life can be fulfilling.

Maybe I should design an app for this and make it my next business.