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Are You Smart Enough to Have Hundreds of Friends?

May 3, 2010

You might be very friendly, good natured person, have  a very appealing smile and willing to make more and more friends (in real world or virtual via Facebook, Orkut, Twitter) but are you smart enough to handle all those relationships. Well, it turns out that our brain can handle only a certain number of relationships at a time which includes kins, friends, foes, and romantic relationships and this upper limit turns out to be ~150 also popularly referred to as Dunbar Number, the idea which British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested in 1992 and became more popular after it was included in one of the chapters of the book Tipping Point. He studied various non-human primates and correlated their group size with their neocortex size in the brain and found a good correlation, the larger the size of neocortex, the bigger was their social interaction group. So, while chimps have a group size of 40-50, humans with a neocortex ratio (CR) of 4.1 have a mean group size of 150. Interestingly, this number has shown up in many studies and many group formations, and have been applied unknowingly in many group settings such as military units and size of villages and tribes in many cultures. So while you might be boasting of having 1000 friends in your facebook profile, your cognitive limits can only process a certain number of friends. Dunbar is already doing a study on Facebook networking and his results will be public anytime this year.

The limit as explained by Dunbar is not due to data storage limitations in the brain, rather the amount of energy and efforts required to groom the relationships. These numbers pertain to the primitive settings where the sole purpose of the group was survival, but the current world where it’s not only a matter of survival but also achieving and getting things done, this requires more amount of energy input into relationships and thus the upper limit on number of stable friendships you can have might even be lowered. We also share part of our lives in virtual world, where we dont meet people and just communicate through mails and messages, maintaining such long distance relationships demand even more cognitive energy and thus will further reduce the number.  Our neocortext part of the brain, I guess, works like a zero-sum system, like a tumbler filled with water upto the brim and so if you add any additional drop of water, equivalent drop will fall off. So when we keep adding more friends, people who are on the fringe of our network (like those whom we dont meet often) might fall off our cognitive conscience. So, while you might think you are smart enough to handle all those friend requests on your facebook profile, in reality you truly interact with only few of them on regular basis and can remember only few of them. It’s not your fault, that’s your cognitive limit and you have to live with it.


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