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How many friends do you need?

How many friends does one need?

Networking--both live and through social media--is the rage today. And network contacts are often referred to as "friends." Networking events, meet-ups, and business that specialize in promoting these are growing like wildfire. People will often boast about how many "friends" they may have in their real or online network. Is it sound and fury signifying nothing, or real human connections that bring benefit?

The answer may lie in the research by an anthropologist and evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar.
Does our ability to manage complex social connections--love lives, work colleagues, childhood friends and acquaintances--explain why we have such large brains? The answer is yes, according to at least one evolutionary biologist, Robin Dunbar.

Dunbar, a British anthropologist and evolutionary biologist, argued in 1998 that there is cognitive limit to the number of relations that any one primate can maintain. In his new book, How Many Friends Does One Person Need, Dunbar argues that you can only keep friendships with 150 people at any given time, because "this limit is a direct function of neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size where stable interpersonal relationships can be maintained." Dunbar says his number of 150 "refers to those people with whom you have a personalized relationship, one that is reciprocal and based around general obligations of trust and reciprocity."

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Dunbar argues that the number has not changed much throughout history and applies the same way to social media on the web the same way as it does in real life. He even goes as far as to say that anyone who claims to have more than 150 real friendships is "suspect," as the quality of the relationships deteriorates as the social group expands.

The circle of 150 is not a homogenous social group, Dunbar explains, but rather consists of four layers called the Circles of Acquaintanceship, which scale relative to each other by a factor of three (an inner core of 5 intimates, and then successive layers of 15, 50 and 150). With each successive circle, the number of people included increases but the emotional intimacy decreases.

What can impact inclusions or exclusion in the group of 150 can be the concept of usefulness. Mark Vernon, a psychologist and author of The Philosophy of Friendship, argues that everyone likes to be useful to their friends, but feeling that a friend is using you is the first sign of the relationship's decline.

Dunbar's research may have been noticed by social media such as Facebook. According to official figures, the average Facebook member now has about 130 "friends."

So people who claim to have a circle of hundreds of "friends" either live or online may be making the claim that flies in the face of Dunbar's research, or doing so to inflate their sense of importance.

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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