Dunbar’s Number, Broken Social Networks, and Back Scratches

Monkeys grooming each other in India.

A photo I took of monkeys grooming each other in India circa 2008.

My brother passed on an article in The New Yorker from a couple weeks back titled The Limits of Friendship. It’s an exposition on Oxford anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s discovery that humans organize into social groups that tend to range from 100-200 people, with the average—150—being an optimal rule of thumb. This is known as Dunbar’s number.

The discovery was made through observing the correlation between the size of an animal’s frontal lobe whereby the larger the frontal lobe (or smaller), the larger the social group size for that animal. Applying this understanding to human brains, “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.”

Here’s more on the number (emphasis added):

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.”

So the 150 (an average) cuts down to 50 and then 15 and 5. I suppose you can’t have 1.66 people, but then again maybe you can?  It’s an interesting question given most of us (present company included) adhere to long-term monogamous relationships.

These optimal human social group sizes are seen ini average modern hunter-gatherer societies (148.4), military company size from the Roman Empire to modern times (with companies having sub-groups that also meet the Dunbar rules).

Applying Dunbar’s number to me.

When it comes to my day-to-day networks, I work with about 17-20 people on a week-in, week-out basis, which feels about right in that I’ve a place that supports that group in a meaningful way, but it also leaves me a little stretched and I can’t (and don’t) have the closeness and support at that group level. Cut by Dunbar’s number again, my inner “work” circle is around three people.

It’s harder to create tiers of my friends, but I’d count about four or five people in my closest circle. It’s hard to expand that circle meaningfully.

Sidebar. I’m reading Peter Thiel’s Zero to One, which at about halfway done (and a short couple hundred pages), is well worth your time. Therein, Thiel talks about your coworkers and how you should work with people you like. He made the following insight, which is powerful in it’s implications:

Since time is your most valuable asset, it’s odd to spend it working with people who don’t envision any long-term future together. If you can’t count durable relationships among the fruits of your time at work, you haven’t invested your time well—even in purely financial terms.

I’m just going to leave that there.

Dunbar’s number and the brokenness of social networks.

I’ve got about 235 Facebook friends, 633 LinkedIn connections, 800 Twitter followers (I’m only following 90 or so), and 800 people in my Google+ circles.

What a bunch of meaningless numbers. #Amiright?

I’ve talked about digital isolation at length before (the last post on this blog over a year and a half ago), but the curated social network is obviously broken. Don’t we all know this? I’d eagerly hear any arguments that “Social Networks” as we know them grow meaningful relationships. The interactions they foster (aside from the 1:1 or 1:few interactions) are ephemeral and lack depth. While it costs almost nothing to “like” someone’s post on Facebook (or comment), we expend time and effort in against those types of interactions that in aggregate is high-cost and low-return.

Is there a better solution? Probably. And thoughtful minds have been trying to find it for at least the last 5-10 years.

The New Yorker article had something to say on this front, as well, via Dunbar:

There’s no question, Dunbar agrees, that networks like Facebook are changing the nature of human interaction. “What Facebook does and why it’s been so successful in so many ways is it allows you to keep track of people who would otherwise effectively disappear,” he said. But one of the things that keeps face-to-face friendships strong is the nature of shared experience: you laugh together; you dance together; you gape at the hot-dog eaters on Coney Island together. We do have a social-media equivalent—sharing, liking, knowing that all of your friends have looked at the same cat video on YouTube as you did—but it lacks the synchronicity of shared experience. It’s like a comedy that you watch by yourself: you won’t laugh as loudly or as often, even if you’re fully aware that all your friends think it’s hysterical. We’ve seen the same movie, but we can’t bond over it in the same way.

This massive shortcoming of digital social interactions harkens back to the inability to “be there” in virtual space the way we can be for others in real-space. Even still, “being there” in the sense of being present to others (and not distracted-while-in-others-presence by engaging our devices every spare moment) is being eroded as digital grabs our attention in the hundreds of spare moments throughout our day.

At least as far as relationships are concerned, some of those spare moments were ways to be present to others—gifting friends and family your time, even if they waste it.

Perhaps we should be grooming each other.

On an even deeper level, there may be a physiological aspect of friendship that virtual connections can never replace. This wouldn’t surprise Dunbar, who discovered his number when he was studying the social bonding that occurs among primates through grooming. Over the past few years, Dunbar and his colleagues have been looking at the importance of touch in sparking the sort of neurological and physiological responses that, in turn, lead to bonding and friendship. “We underestimate how important touch is in the social world,” he said. With a light brush on the shoulder, a pat, or a squeeze of the arm or hand, we can communicate a deeper bond than through speaking alone. “Words are easy. But the way someone touches you, even casually, tells you more about what they’re thinking of you.”

Dunbar already knew that in monkeys grooming activated the endorphin system. Was the same true in humans? In a series of studies, Dunbar and his colleagues demonstrated that very light touch triggers a cascade of endorphins that, in turn, are important for creating personal relationships.

Who doesn’t like to have their back scratched? Serious question.

There’s something to being touched. Who doesn’t take note when a coworker pats you on the shoulder? We register touch in a meaningful way and while I can’t help but think of tapping the “like” button as a digital touch, I doubt highly that receiving likes sets in motion the bonding/endorphin response Dunbar sees with monkeys grooming.

Indeed, a firm handshake is still the common greeting between people when they physically engage each other, but a handshake isn’t sustained. Nor are handshakes common beyond initial formalities. Just thinking back on the last few days, I’ve hardly shaken anyone’s hand. Handshakes simply aren’t that common.

Meanwhile you’ve got hugs. I love a good hug as much as the next guy and while I can’t put my finger on a specific source, Google seems to support hugs as a source of oxytocin, which is another socially-dependent, “connecting” hormone.

On the other hand, there’s hand holding. I’m reminded of one of the more endearing things I’ve experienced through getting to know Indian culture, which is that male friends often hold hands. This has resulted in times when I’ve sat down next to my father-in-law and held his hand. It’s hard to express just how surprisingly comforting that specific sort of engagement is.

We forget our base animal nature at our own peril. I don’t know how we get back to grooming-as-a-way-to-connect with others. I do think I’ve seen brushing my daughter’s hair as a way to connect with them.

And then there’s always a good back scratch, right?

So what do we do?

In our age of solving the world’s problems through digital efforts, I’m left wondering how we can get back to something physical in the way we engage with others. Physical touch seems like a missing ingredient in the equation. A rapidly evaporating ingredient is being physically “there” for others.

Are there ways to digitally solve this problem? While the Apple watch offers a way to share a “touch” through haptic feedback, I’m skeptical of this as the solution we need.

Got any other ideas?

 

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