Robin Dunbar, anthropologist and Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford will be joining us at 3.30pm on Friday 31 May at The Arms Hotel to explore a subject close to all our hearts – the psychology of romantic love. How and why do we fall in love? He will also discuss his now famous “Dunbar’s Number,” (approximately 150) which is a measurement of the “cognitive limit” of people we can maintain stable relationships with. While he’s long been an influential scholar, the Silicon Valley programmers who build social network sites such as Facebook are now looking to Dunbar’s ideas in an attempt to enhance the social dynamics of the online world. Path, a mobile photo-sharing and messaging service is built explicitly on his theory, limiting its users to 150 friends.
I asked Robin about his fascinating theory and what it means for us in these times of increasing mobile technology and internet usage.
JG: Firstly, what exactly is evolutionary anthropology?
RD. The study of humans from an evolutionary point of view – our physical evolution from our common ancestor with the great apes 6 million years ago, human behaviour in an evolutionary context, human genetics.
RD. I think two thinks are critical – the ability to tell stories and, for better or worse, religion – both require us to be able to imagine a world that isn’t the one we physically inhabit, and that is something no other animals can do, because it requires psychological abilities that only a species with a brain as big as ours can do… so we are genuinely unique in this respect.
JG. You have famously said that 150 is the “cognitive limit” of the number of people with whom we can have meaningful relationships with. How did you come up with this number?
RD. We predicted it from an equation relating social group size and brain size in primates (monkeys and apes) by plugging human brain size into the equation.
JG. What about Facebook and Twitter? Should we limit ourselves to only 150 friends? This seems like a small number.
RD. Facebook has muddied the waters by labelling anyone you sign up as a “friend”, whether you know them or not. Friendships (which includes family) are relationships that have history and involve reciprocity and obligations; out beyond that we have acquaintances (people you know but wouldn’t necessarily invite home). All people are doing on facebook is adding in people whom we would count as acquaintances in everyday life. That said, when Facebook did a complete trawl of their own database, the average number of friends was almost exactly 150 (with a most frequent number around 120-130) – in other words, most people sign up people they know in real life, but there is a long tail to the right where A FEW(!) people have very large numbers (more than 200). These are mostly professional users (poets, signers, bands, journalists) using it as a cheap fan club, with some boys in the middle (with say 200 -500 friends) who haven’t quite learned that friendship is more than just clicking ‘yes.’ Twitter is different, in that it is more like a lighthouse flashing away, whether a ship is passing or not; following isn’t a relationship (i.e. the twitterer doesn’t know who you are). However, recently someone did an analysis of twitter exchanges (i.e. followers of a particular account who send messages to each other within the account): these form a community of 100-200 individual typically.
JG. What about cyberbullying? A major problem which has emerged over the last few years, driving some children and adults to commit suicide. Do you think the lack of face-to-face contact is a factor in this and is it having a negative impact on our social relationships?
RD. Seriously bad problem. It’s a bit like road rage. In real life, seeing the whites of the eyes puts a break on hasty over-reaction, but when you are isolated from the person (i.e. in a car or on the internet) you don’t have that natural brake pedal to inhibit you.
JG. Can a person have a meaningful relationship with people they only converse with online?
RD. Yes and no. Online is not really that different to the pub, except that you can’t see the whites of the eyes. Your initial conversation in both is a kind of opening gambit, putting out feelers to see what the other person is like. If this ticks enough boxes, then you up the ante and see if it still works. There is no reason why you HAVE to do that face-to-face, but we aren’t sure that you can create lasting relationships if you don’t eventually meet up. Online relationships can develop into deep friendships, but there is always the risk that the person at the other end is putting on a persona, and isn’t who you think they are – which is why scams work. Once you have convinced yourself that they are the person you have created in your imagination, it is very difficult to undo that (which is why romantic scams on the internet work so well).
JG. Speaking of romantic relationships, do you think it’s a good idea to search for your perfect partner on online dating websites?
RD. Once upon a time, the village matchmaker or your friends and relations found you a partner, but that’s less easy these days given that we are so mobile. So the internet is an option. The only downside is that one just has to be more careful of scammers than one would have to be in everyday life. This is partly our fault: when we fall in love, we create a virtual image of the loved one, and that is crucial to allowing us to be persistent enough to get them to take an interest. We do the same on the internet, but we don’t have a reality check at the critical moment, and, as scammers are VERY careful to ensure, by the time we do meet them we are so hooked that Armagedon wouldn’t make us believe that our image isn’t the reality, no matter what reality says.
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