Dunbar’s Number: The Math That Murders the World
By Heath Shive
The most evil number in the world is not 13 or even 666.
The most evil number in the world is 150. It’s called Dunbar’s number.
Don’t believe me?
To the science!
In the 1990s, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar studied primates and found that there was a correlation between the size of the primate’s neocortex and how large their group size was. Using data from 38 primate genera, Dunbar predicted a human “mean group size” of 148 – usually rounded to 150.
So according to Dunbar, an average human can maintain only about 150 stable relationships comfortably. Dunbar explained it informally as “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”
Dunbar’s number suggests that there’s an upper limit to how many people you can form stable social relationships (i.e., you genuinely care for them).
Dunbar connected the number to historical antecedents. For example, 150 is the estimated size of a Neolithic farming village. The upper limit of a Roman century was 150 – so is the size of a modern infantry company.
The size of an average wedding is around 150.
Malcolm Gladwell discusses Dunbar’s number in his best-selling book “The Tipping Point.” The management of W.L. Gore and Associates (best known for Gore-Tex) discovered that if more than 150 employees worked in one building, then social problems began to multiply. So when the office gets too big, they just set up the next 150 employees in another building!
Your emotional tribe only consists of 150 people.
Why is this so evil? Because it means you cannot connect to the other 7 billion people meaningfully.
Ever wonder how a CEO will not give a damn about the factory he shuts down? You want to know how materially comfortable people will not care for the poor? Do you want to know why nothing happens until it happens to you – or someone you care about?
True, you can use your imagination to extend your empathy to strangers – but never in any genuine or accurate way.
We tend to think of the brain as infinite and boundless. But we’re only human. There is a limit to what we can do and maintain in our brains.
Because of Dunbar’s Number, you have only so much time – and only so much brain – to involve your life with only so many people.
We tend to ignore anyone outside our tribe.
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Dunbar, R.I.M. (1992). “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates.” Journal of Human Evolution. 22 (6): 469-493.
Dunbar, Robin. Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. Harvard University Press, 2000.
Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point – How Little Things Make a Big Difference. Little, Brown and Company, 2000.
The Knot Wedding Study numbers for 2016 were taken from XOGroup Inc. https://xogroupinc.com/press-releases/theknot2016realweddings_costofweddingsus/
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.