Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
9 Mar

Are Humans Hard Wired For A Limited Social Circle?

Despite growing insight into neuroscience and the physical limitations of our consciousness, we have the tendency to ascribe a limitlessness to our minds. We readily accept the existence of certain boundaries in the material world, like fences, social stations, rules, laws (of physics and of states), or physical characteristics (“You must be this tall to ride the roller-coaster”), but when it comes to the inner world – the mind, our memories, our imagination, our cognition, and our social skills – we have trouble conceiving of real mechanical limits. When a word eludes us, playing about the periphery of our cognition (“tip of the tongue”), do we complain about faulty hardware? When we forget that cute girl’s name we just met at the party, do we blame the lack of available short-term memory data “chunks”? It’s only through neurological research that we’re even “aware” of the bioelectric interplay that is our thought process; in general, in everyday existence, we don’t think of our thoughts and our emotions in cold, mechanistic terms. We simply think, remember, feel, etc., without getting all meta about it.

Yet it’s clear that there are physical limits to our minds. The consensus on short-term memory, for example, is that most people are limited to retaining just seven items at once, or seven chunks of data – a physical limitation, hard wired into our brains. What if we were similarly hard-wired to effectively manage a limited number of personal relationships? It seems plausible. If memory has a corresponding physical capacity, why wouldn’t other functions of the brain?

Dunbar’s Number

Primatologists have often noted that non-human primates live in “grooming cliques,” tight-knit social groups of varying sizes where grooming is the means by which the members socialize and stay tight-knit. The number of members in a non-human primate grooming clique aren’t randomized, but rather dependent on the size of the particular primate’s neocortex region of the brain. Greater volume is associated with a higher companion threshold. Primate species with bigger brains tend to have larger social groups.

A British anthropologist named Robin Dunbar figured the same principle ought to apply to all primates – human and non-human alike. In 1992, using the predictive value of neocortex size, he was able to accurately predict average group size for thirty-six species of monkeys and apes. He then followed suit (abstract) for human primates and came up with a human maximum “mean group size” of 150 and an “intimate circle size” of 12. Hypothesis in hand, he then compared his prediction with observed human group sizes, paying special attention to the anthropological literature and reports from hunter-gatherer societies. The homo sapien brain developed around 250,000 years ago, so looking at hunter-gatherers was his best bet for approximating the social behaviors of Paleolithic ancestors.

For the most part, his predictions held true. The upper limit for human social cohesiveness was groups of about 150, and this tended to occur in situations involving intense environmental or economic pressure – like war (Roman maniples contained around 160 men) or early agriculture (Neolithic farming villages ran about 150 deep, and 150 members marked the point at which Hutterite settlements typically split apart). Any higher, and it’d be too costly and require too much social “grooming” to maintain the group.

The hunter-gatherer existence self-regulates tribal size, really. Too few members make hunting unfeasible (as fit as he was, Grok wasn’t taking down a buffalo by himself, let alone lugging it back to camp), and foraging becomes more effective the more hands you commit to the task. A HG group had to be mobile and lean, able to follow the game when it moved. It had to be socially cohesive; people had to coordinate hunts, forage outings, and divvy up food. A large, ranging, sloppy group would mean more weak links, and in a social framework where every member was integral to the success of the whole, it simply wouldn’t work out. As we see with the Hutterites, a hunter-gatherer tribe that got too big for its britches would simply become two hunter-gatherer tribes rather than languish and fail.

(Overstepping Dunbar’s number might also increase stress. We clearly see that in farm animals. Increasing group size past optimal levels increases damaging behavior indicative of stress: feather pecking in hens and tail biting in pigs. No, we are neither pigs nor chickens, but we’re still sensitive to our environments.)

Okay, so there appears to be a limit to the number of people with whom a single person can maintain stable, rewarding relationships based on the size of the neocortex. This isn’t a time constraint thing here. If Dunbar is right, it’s an actual self-limiting brain mechanism forged 250,000 years ago that persists today. Agriculture no doubt pushed the limits by forcing us into crowded villages, but it’s only recently that our social networks have undergone another, even more drastic shift in size and composition: social media.

Facebook, Twitter, even regular old email are all forcing us into novel areas of social networking. We aren’t living in villages or tribes or bands. We’re running into childhood friends from thirty years ago. We’re getting text messages from twenty different acquaintances on a single day. Are we equipped to handle this sort of thing? Are we negatively impacting the quality of our social interactions? Are we spreading ourselves too thin? (See Dunbar’s take here.) Or does the new media allow us to transcend, or tinker with, previously immutable biological limitations? Maybe. I’m reminded of how working memory (a theoretical concept that’s beginning to replace short-term memory in some circles, working memory describes the temporary storage of information for immediate cognitive tasks like learning, reasoning, and calculating). As with short-term memory, most people are limited to seven or so “chunks” of working memory data. A chunk might be a single digit, a single word, or even a concept, but a few people can use advanced encoding techniques to expand the scope of each chunk. Where one person might be able to repeat seven digits from normal working memory, another might encode each chunk to include sequences of four or five numbers. This allows them to remember seventy numbers instead of seven, and they’re using the same brain stuff as everyone else. The neurological bandwidth hasn’t increased – their brains don’t physically grow larger – but they utilize the available bandwidth with greater efficiency.

Maybe Facebook and other social media offer the chance to make greater use of the available “socializing chunks” in our brain. Like with working memory, the seven chunks of available bandwidth are always going to be there, but it’s what you put inside that matters. Perhaps tools like Facebook allow us to “store” information on friends and family without taking up valuable mental real estate. I don’t think that’s “good” or “bad.” Hell, the reason we developed the written word was to avoid having to remember minutiae.

Maybe we still adhere to Dunbar’s number without really paying attention. I mean, it’s easy to tally Facebook friends into the thousands without actually knowing them. Adding a friend is almost an afterthought; is it really harmful, stressful, or contrary to our evolutionary social framework if we add an old acquaintance to our friend list and then never speak to them?

Problems arise, I think, when the virtual social network displaces the tangible one. Chatting online or through email is different than face-to-face interaction. Everything is calm and measured. There’s little room for incidentals, mistakes, or awkward pauses. You lose the physical contact and the body language cues. Emoticons can never replace emotive expression. As long as we maintain physical contact with friends, family, and loved ones, using online or virtual tools to augment the “real” relationships can only be helpful. Last week, for example, I met up with Brent Pottenger and Aaron Blaisdell, two regular commenters, in person. We established an online relationship, which has transitioned into an “actual” real world social network. PrimalCon is another great example. Without MDA there wouldn’t be a PrimalCon to bring this virtual community together in person. The Primal Blueprint is all about merging evolutionary truths with modern technology; it’s about cherry picking the best stuff from past and present.

Social media allows us to overstep our neurological social sphere boundaries. When it comes to diet, sunlight, sleep, stress, and physical exertion, I think we agree that sticking to ancestral, evolutionary precedent is the best policy, but that doesn’t have to apply to social networks. I guess I’m cautiously optimistic about the use of “social supplements” like Facebook or email. Overstepping our natural bounds is essentially what makes us human, after all. We just have to be smart about it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Hit me up with a comment and thanks for reading!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I never understood the idea that people are so glad when they can’t use their phones because then they aren’t available 24 hours a day. Just because your phone is ringing, doesn’t mean you have to answer it! Whenever I visit my mother, I’m always harassing her about her phone. She thinks if she doesn’t answer it right that second (rather than letting people leave a message) then something is going to go amiss, but then she complains that people are always calling her. If you don’t want to talk to someone, don’t answer the phone, period. People are so impatient nowadays – it’s good to make them wait.

    Same goes for Twitter and Facebook. I see no appeal to telling people everything that I’m doing, especially if they aren’t close friends. Those 150 people who are FB “friends” are not your friends – they’re acquaintances. There’s a big difference. I find that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to forge meaningful relationships because people have become so flighty. So many people seem to think it’s okay to make plans and then flake out at the last minute because they texted you, so what’s the big deal, right? I’d rather have one real friend than a million FB ones.

    Remember, real friends are people who are still there when you need them. They’re supposed to be a support network. How many of your friends would really pull through for you when you needed them? And would you be willing to sacrifice yourself for them as well?

    kcurtain wrote on March 10th, 2010
  2. Just like with anything in life…..moderation. Facebook is no different than any other way of communicating. It’s about how you utilize it and when. I check facebook once a day and post when something is worth interest to my friends and family.

    Steve wrote on March 10th, 2010
  3. I think things like fb and cell phones can definitely cause stress if not moderated, i like having fb to keep in touch with out of town family but that is basically what I use it for, I make it a point not to add anyone as a fb friend unless they are a relative or if I honestly maintain a real life friendship with that person, everyone wants to have friends but I want real ones, not pretend friends, plus there is the stress of having to limit your profile to who can see what when if you only add those you trust you can be open and honest and yourself, and one thing I have learned is life is much less stressful when you can be yourself. Sometimes I fear I am at the opposite end of the spectrum, I only have 1 friend, sure I have family and work colleagues who I enjoy time with at work but I only have one personal friend who I spend time with outside of work or family gatherings I never feel stressed or bogged down from my cellphone because to me when it rings it is a special treat because it is so rare and exciting. When I was in highschool and college and had a large group of friends I remember feeling like I needed to escape from it all because I never had me time and now perhaps I have way too much me time, its harder to make friends when you arent in school anymore and everyone you knew has moved this way or that. I just need to find my niche and perhaps it will fall into place. One thing I will stick to though is, I would rather have a few real meaningful friendships than 300 fake friendships that only exist in facebook.

    jennyleigh wrote on March 10th, 2010
  4. Great discussion. I think the majority of us realize, that its more important to focus our limited time on real relationships in our lives…family, and close friends, and anything that makes us better people, for our own sanity as well as ohers. If it wasn’t for social media, alot of the businesses wouldn’t have the exposure. MDA for example. The more hits, the more potential for selling books, and supplements. WHICH IS A GOOD THING. This is stuff we need to spend our time and money on. Anything that improves our quality of life. As for reading peoples hourly or daily updates, this stuff isn’t worth your time. I think only certain personalities can deal with all that added information(mostly drama). Maybe if we limit the amount of friends on FB, that might help, but maybe a complete removal will feel great. Hard to say. I personally had a very good friend inform me about MDA, through email. Someone I talk to on regular basis. Hope this helps. I love this site by the way….very productive stuff. Thanks Mark.

    Doug wrote on March 10th, 2010
  5. Not to be too controversial but Jesus had the twelve disciples, and then a larger group of people he wasn’t as close to.

    Funny how it reflects the studies also.

    Great post as always Mark!

    JStrick wrote on March 10th, 2010
  6. I really loved this post, Mark. It brings up some very interesting and important ideas. I don’t have any profound thoughts to add, just some comments. I use FB to keep up with out of town friends and family, and a few online “friends” I “met” through common interests. I don’t do Twitter. I read and participate in a couple of online forums. I hate my cell phone and don’t talk on it much. But still, it can get quite overwhelming sometimes. The other day, I deleted 100 “friends” from my Facebook account after I realized that I barely knew those people. I’d met most of them once or twice at various writer’s conferences. They weren’t my friends, and we have little in common, except that we write. But who are they, really? I don’t know, and I don’t have the time or energy to find out! I guess it gets down to deciding who is truly important in our lives, (not for business, that is different,) but for companionship and friendship. Certainly our immediate family and close IRL friends are first, and then some in our online community after that. But how many people can we truly bond with, and enjoy REAL community with at one time? The older I get, the more I prefer smaller groups of people. I delight in close friends and family, and some online friends that share my interests whom I hope to meet someday. I have no desire to be part of a huge mass of people, I detest being lumped into a stereotypical “group,” abhor collectivism, and I prefer being governed locally, rather than nationally. So articles like these just confirm to me that smaller groups work better. It is within them that we feel most comfortable and thrive. Thanks for helping me exercise my brain with these thought-provoking blog posts.

    Suzan wrote on March 10th, 2010
  7. Nothing feels more gratifying than connecting with someone face to face in an intimate way; something that you can never get from social media or being on the computer/cell phone… what am I still doing on here! Time to head out into the REAL world :)

    Dineen wrote on March 10th, 2010
  8. I wonder if we have the same tendency with people. Nowadays people go into schools with 500 to 1000 children and stroll in cities with millions of people. In these circumstances, it is no a wonder if rather than perceiving people as individuals, we have come into a world full of stereotypes and categories for people, forming several into one.

    Multi Wing wrote on March 11th, 2010
  9. I think the key is to show compassion for everyone.

    Doug wrote on March 11th, 2010
  10. In addition to pushing us past our natural neurologically wired social boundaries, it seems that social media may also have the unintended effect of causing us to focus more on impressions than substance. In a way, it makes us more adolescent, since the ability to edit or even create multiple online personalities moves us further from our hardwired sense of ‘identity’ and compromises the value of interactions with others.

    Jesse Bastide wrote on March 11th, 2010
    • You are not your thoughts, I invite you to find out who you really are! Who generates those thoughts you have? Do you really have control?

      Check out Byron Katie, thoughts = suffering or thoughts + resistance = suffering.

      Bjorn89 wrote on June 12th, 2010
  11. I have used Face Book for a few years now and in the process I deleted it once, reopened it, added more friends than I need, deleted anyone who wan’t family, and now I am thinking about going back to family only. Face Book has had some good points, and I don’t waste my time reading all the junk on it, however since my family is spread out all over the world I think I will keep it simple with family members. I find that when it gets to big, I miss everything that would otherwise be ‘important’ while it is replaced with the junk that FB is plagued by.

    Interesting thoughts on the circle of friends, I do my best to keep things simple with a couple of close friends, and beyond that I keep to myself / my family. This gives me plenty of free time and I don’t feel the need to schedule my life 2 weeks ahead of time. On the contrary, I have a friend who has a large social circle who schedules her friends in 2 week blocks while complaining about her busy life!

    This is why I enjoy the PB lifestyle…it’s simple in all aspects.

    Karl MacPhee wrote on March 12th, 2010
  12. The problem is not the social media, the problem is how you act up-on it.

    I’ve read some comments(not all) and I saw a lot of people felt obliged TOO add stuff to their FB account, instead of enjoying it for their own pleassure. Also, I force people to come to my door if I don’t pick up the phone. Or I call them back later, if it’s urgent they should text me. I rarely pick-up my phone. I also find it extremely annoying when I’m talking to someone and the phone rings, most people pick it up. I let it keep ringing and focus on the person I am with, or ask permission to pick up the phone.

    Why do people feel obliged to be constantly on MSN,AIM,Twitter étc?

    Bjorn89 wrote on June 12th, 2010
  13. Wow, intimate circle of 12 really struck a cord. The people that are really close to me always hover around that number.

    I have never enjoyed large social networks, but the value that they can bring is undeniable.

    Jeff wrote on November 13th, 2010
  14. I don’t really like using facebook but, it seems as if all my friends spend at least a portion of their social life on that website now. It’s an interesting to keep track of what people you “sorta know” are doing but, I only use the site a couple time a month.

    D R @ Motivating Minutes wrote on March 13th, 2011
  15. Spencer Wells and Jared Diamind wrote about this,explaining that the Neolithic societies were problematic after they reach approx. the limit of 150.It is possible that war was nonexistent in Paleo tribes,and the trouble we see today is a result of civilization.They feel that the biggest mistake we ever made was agriculture,both from a diet standpoint and society.

    John Wells wrote on March 13th, 2011
  16. Pigeons use chunking mechanisms too.

    Allison wrote on March 19th, 2011
  17. You don’t really know someone till you’ve smelled them, just saying. And if you’ve never taken the time to smell the people in your life , why not? aren’t they important to you?

    alex wrote on August 23rd, 2011
  18. 139 FaceBook “friends” and I know all of them. Even as high as that seems to me, and maybe you as well, I seem to be on the conservative side of Social Networking. Many of the people I know have more than 500 friends and are on FB constantly. I tend to be on more than I’d Ike, but by turning the notifications on my phone to silent I only check it when I pull out my phone rather than whenever it beeps.

    Morghan wrote on November 8th, 2011
  19. Very very interesting post.

    Quotes wrote on January 16th, 2012
  20. It is very true. Our deepest most meaningful relationships ceom from the closest 3 expanded to 7 and then 12. Beyond that we need systems to manage all the data coming in at us at any one time, just like we developed systems for manufacturing and time management you have to have effective systems in place to manage the data. We don’t have to be enslaevd to immediate gratification…and instant returns…For example. I return all phone calls typically on Friday unless they are absolute emergencies. Email is placed into folders and prioritized and I respond on the email days I have set aside. Txt messages get prioritized unless it is an emergency from my family. If you develop a system then you are not enslaved to the chaos around you and have time to actually do some deep thinking with will give you tremendous wisdom from those who don’t and are too stretched out and scatterbrined mentally, emotionally and spiritually. The real test. Shut down your smart phone for a week litterally and see what happens. First few days may be a bit rough but eventually you come back to normal. If you don’t do it, believe me our Master Creator will shut down all the distractions. Then you can enjoy life again. Cheers

    Roger wrote on May 11th, 2012

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