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Dunbar Numbers - the Key to Understanding Society?

How society operates is a fundamentally important question. Now, it's more important than ever, to work together.

Just human nature?

Just human nature?

Primates spend an awful lot of time grooming each other, as one can see in any wildlife documentary. We would too if we lived under similar conditions, grooming is both necessary and sociable.

Robin Dunbar, born on June 28th, 1947, is an anthropologist and psychologist, who wanted to find out why primates devote so much time to it. Thinking about this led him off on a tangent. Primates have large brains because they live within a complex network of social relationships, the larger that network, the larger the primate's neocortex has to be in order to keep track of the complexity. Theoretically, then, if you measure the size of the neocortex, you should be able to predict the size of the group that your primate belongs to.

We, humans, are, of course, primates, so Dunbar wondered if this would apply to humans. We do not need to go through the maths but Dunbar did indeed come up with an optimum group number for human society, it is 150.

Dunbar Numbers and Empathy

But this is just one of a series of connected numbers. We will take a girl called Ana as an example. it does not matter if Ana lives in Mumbai, Madagascar, or Manhattan; there will be roughly 1,500 people that she can put a name to (this appears to be an upper limit), of these 500 are acquaintances; 150 she considers to be casual friends - the people she would invite to a large event, 50 of these she would consider as closer friends, of whom 15 are more intimate and 5 are her best friends.

These numbers may or may not include family members, it would depend on how close Ana is to her family. As Ana goes through life, the members of the groups change, she will lose contact with some and meet new people, but the totals will remain more or less the same.

Dunbar discovered that there was considerable evidence to support his idea. Present-day hunter-gatherer societies form groups of around 150, military forces are and have been organized according to Dunbar numbers, businesses have discovered that they function more efficiently if they follow the rule.

Whether social media is beginning to change this is a debatable point.If so, it would seem to imply that the dedicated Instagrammer is developing a larger neocortex but, as the neocortex is involved in cognition, spatial reasoning, and language, as well as other higher-order brain functions, there is considerable room for doubt.

If Dunbar is right, and it should be remembered that his numbers are averages, then there is, I think, an implication that is worth thinking about. Imagine that someone you know has an unfortunate accident. Your reaction will depend on which of your groups this person belongs to. If one of your 5 best friends is the victim, you will be considerably upset, then, as you move further out, your reaction will be less intimate, up to the point that if he belongs only to the 1,500, you may think “what a pity” and then carry on as normal. But what would your reaction be if this accident happened to a complete unknown? The short answer is that your emotional response would be nonexistent (unless it happened to a favorite actor, singer, or sportsman, but then your reaction depends on the degree of influence that this person had on you. This may explain the impact that Princess Diana's death had).

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Steve Taylor on "Empathy"

Doctor Steve Taylor in an article titled 'Empathy: The Ability that Makes Us Truly Human.' posted on March 24th, 2012 on says:-

"Empathy is the ability to 'feel with' another person, to identity with them and sense what they are experiencing. It is sometimes seen as the ability to 'read' other people's emotions, or the ability to imagine what they are feeling, by 'putting yourself in their shoes.' In other words, empathy is seen as a cognitive ability, along the same lines as the ability to imagine future scenarios or to solve problems based on previous experience. But in my view, empathy is more than this. It is the ability to make a psychic and emotional connection with another person, to actually enter into their mind-space. When we experience real empathy or compassion, in a sense our identity actually merges with another person's. Your 'self-boundary' melts away; the separateness between you and the other person fades.

Our strongly developed sense of individuality - or being a personal self, or ego - can make it difficult for us to experience this state of connection. The ego walls us off from other people, particularly those belonging to other groups - the other gender (in the case of female oppression), other tribes, nations, races, or classes. It encloses us in a narrow world of our own thoughts and desires, making us so self-absorbed that it is difficult for us to experience the world from other people's perspectives. Other people become truly 'other' to us. And this makes it possible for us to inflict suffering on them, simply because we cannot sense the pain we are causing them. We cannot feel with them enough to sense their suffering."

Taylor goes on to say that, to some extent, empathy can be learned and this may well be true. But I would suggest that a person can normally only feel empathy for those within her upper Dunbar range of associates. Of course, people work for and donate to charities; some devote their lives to them and the main religions emphasize the brotherhood of man. Even so, this attitude depends more on a way of seeing the world rather than a directly emotional one. If this were not so, 3.1 million children would not needlessly die from malnutrition each year.



Three centuries before Christ, Mencius a Confucian thinker who is considered second only to Confucius himself, believed that humans were innately good but it was a quality which, like a plant, needed to be cultivated. He used the example of a child falling down a well, an onlooker would feel alarmed and distressed and rush to help; not because she wanted to befriend the unfortunate toddler's parents, nor because she wanted praise from friends and neighbors and not because she was worried about her reputation but simply because of commiseration - empathy in other words. Surely, Mencius was right in saying that people would try to help, or most people would, and if there were a hungry child crying on our doorstep we would feed him. We can, then, extend our empathy to those within our immediate experience but I will leave you with one question - What is the difference between a hungry child on our doorstep and a hungry child in the Democratic Republic of the Congo?


Thanks to wikipedia for background details.

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