What is Dunbar’s Theory?

Dunbar Number Theory

An idea created by British Anthro­pologist Robin Dunbar in the 1990s, the Dunbar Number is a theoretical limit on human social interactions

We all understand the importance of creating and maintaining good relati­on­ships both in and outside of work… but if you’ve ever asked the question “can you have too many friends?”, then Dunbar’s Number Theory will surely be of interest to you. Today, we’re going to look at this well-known theory and how it matches up to the complexities of today’s social environment.

What is Dunbar's Number?

After studying primates and their social groups, Robin Dunbar translated the results based on the average human brain size and came up with the idea that humans can maintain no more than 150 relati­on­ships. He explained these as being stable relati­on­ships, whether that be past colleagues, school friends or old friends that can be re-acquainted easily. Dunbar also studied groups throughout history; from units of Roman legion soldiers to hunter-gatherer societies, many had achieved a number around 150.

The idea behind Dunbar’s theory is that social group size is directly related to the neocortex, the part of the brain where cognition, language and sensory perception are processed. The theory argues that additional social relati­on­ships can be maintained but are likely to require stricter laws and norms in order to maintain group cohesion.

Dunbar Number Theory

How is Dunbar’s Number Used?

Today, this theory is applied to a number of different areas, from social network sites to reports on evolutionary psychology. The number has also been used to study inter-personal groups in online video games and by business management to determine the ideal workgroup size. Dunbar even did a study in 2010 relating to popular social media site Facebook and claimed that his theory still stands based on his obser­vations.

Most famously, W.L. Gore & Associates had used trial and error to find the perfect number. On realising that problems started to arise socially once Dunbar’s Number had been surpassed, so the company decided to build facilities that can hold a maximum of 150 employees, building new ones when more staff were recruited.

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