On Dunbar’s Number And My Comfort Zone

What are the limits of friendship?

No, I am not asking what are the boundaries one should not cross in their friendship. I mean how many people can you actually call as friends – is there a limit?

In my mother-tongue Marathi (or even Sanskrit), there is a word called जगन्मित्र – which means “friendly to all”. There is another word in Marathi/Sanskrit called अजातशत्रू – which means “the one who doesn’t have enemies”. Both are different from “being friends with all”. Being friendly is not the same as being friends with someone. And not being enemies is also not the same as being friends.

So how many friends can people have? And what constitutes relationship called “Friends”. I have a classmate from my school days, whom I call “acquaintance”, just to irritate her 🙂 I tell her that we are not friends yet…because, for me, friends is more intimate than just knowing someone as colleague or being in the same class, or being neighbours etc.

Stars from the popular US sitcom of 90’s, F.R.I.E.N.D.S, recently reunited. The group of 6 unique personalities can be considered as friends. They lived together, bonded well, fought often and so on. Another popular sitcom Big Bang Theory had 4-5 main characters who could be considered as friends. In most of iconic movies on friendships, usually there would be 2 or 3 people – in some rare cases there would be 4. Very rarely one would find a groups of 5+ friends.

That was before the era of internet and especially Social Media.

I remember that in early years of internet there used to be Chat Rooms…one could join there and chat (often flirt) with another person online…sometimes they would make real friends. But after arrival of Social Media it is common to have 100-200-500 or even 1000 “Friends”. But how many are really friends? Is that number static? Or growing? Or, in fact, shrinking?

Robin Dunbar came up with his eponymous number almost by accident. The University of Oxford anthropologist and psychologist (then at University College London) was trying to solve the problem of why primates devote so much time and effort to grooming. In the process of figuring out the solution, he chanced upon a potentially far more intriguing application for his research. At the time, in the nineteen-eighties, the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis (now known as the Social Brain Hypothesis) had just been introduced into anthropological and primatology discourse. It held that primates have large brains because they live in socially complex societies: the larger the group, the larger the brain. Thus, from the size of an animal’s neocortex, the frontal lobe in particular, you could theoretically predict the group size for that animal.

Looking at his grooming data, Dunbar made the mental leap to humans. “We also had humans in our data set so it occurred to me to look to see what size group that relationship might predict for humans,” he told me recently. Dunbar did the math, using a ratio of neocortical volume to total brain volume and mean group size, and came up with a number. Judging from the size of an average human brain, the number of people the average person could have in her social group was a hundred and fifty. Anything beyond that would be too complicated to handle at optimal processing levels. For the last twenty-two years, Dunbar has been “unpacking and exploring” what that number actually means—and whether our ever-expanding social networks have done anything to change it.

The Dunbar number is actually a series of them. The best known, a hundred and fifty, is the number of people we call casual friends—the people, say, you’d invite to a large party. (In reality, it’s a range: a hundred at the low end and two hundred for the more social of us.) From there, through qualitative interviews coupled with analysis of experimental and survey data, Dunbar discovered that the number grows and decreases according to a precise formula, roughly a “rule of three.” The next step down, fifty, is the number of people we call close friends—perhaps the people you’d invite to a group dinner. You see them often, but not so much that you consider them to be true intimates. Then there’s the circle of fifteen: the friends that you can turn to for sympathy when you need it, the ones you can confide in about most things. The most intimate Dunbar number, five, is your close support group. These are your best friends (and often family members). On the flipside, groups can extend to five hundred, the acquaintance level, and to fifteen hundred, the absolute limit—the people for whom you can put a name to a face. While the group sizes are relatively stable, their composition can be fluid. Your five today may not be your five next week; people drift among layers and sometimes fall out of them altogether.

I was relieved to see the above chart which suggests that majority of people still consider only 3-5 as close friends. I was also NOT surprised that 27% of Americans think or claim to have 10+ friends. In the world of social media, one is almost pressurised to have as many friends/connections/followers as possible. But that seems to be unreal number bumped up by dishonest people, or people who really don’t understand what close friendship is.

I would put myself in the same bracket as those 39% Americans who said to have 3-5 close friends. If I have to push myself hard, I can even join the 14% of Americans who have just 1-2 friends.

Not just friends, I find it hard even to be in large groups. I prefer 1-on-1 conversations. Or maybe a small group of 2-3 people – not just with friends, but any group. I envy and admire people who are outgoing and naturally good with socialising. It’s a good skills/quality to have. But I can’t do it and I don’t regret that.

Knowing ourself and finding our comfort zone with respect to social interactions is really important. We should be what comes naturally to us.

So how many close friends do you have?


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