How Many Friends Are Too Many?

There are people who boast of having more than a thousand friends on Facebook. A blogger once indicated that he was following over a thousand blogs. Does this make sense? An evolutionary biologist, Robin Dunbar, has come up with an hypothesis that provides an answer.1

The hypothesis is called the social intelligence hypothesis. Dunbar notes that social relationships make demands on cognition that are reflected in larger brains. Apes and monkeys are social animals that have a particularly large neocortex, a region of the brain that regulates language abilities, emotion, and the awareness of others. Our social relationships are much more complex and that is reflected in an even larger neocortex. Our brains consume about twenty percent of our energy. Dunbar has come up with a number called, oddly enough, “Dunbar’s number.” He bases this number on the size of the human brain and its complexity. He calculates that the maximum number of relationships our brain can keep track of at one tine to be about 150 . This number includes all degrees of relationships. He estimates that we have a core group of about five people that we speak with frequently. Personally, I find this number to be a tad low. At the other extreme we have about 100 acquaintaces we speak with about once a year. Although we can quibble about these numbers, I would hang my hat on 150 being the maximum number of people we can call friends.

If you count the number of friends you have had over a lifetime, you might well exceed 150. But it is likely that most of these friends have dropped out and you no longer interact with them regularly. Of course, you are glad to see them again and are happy to chat up old times. However, human relationships take time and cognitive resources, so the number of true friends with whom you interact is limited. Although you might have more acquaintances, know more people, they are probably not adequately characterized as friends.

I would argue that there is a trade-off between the number of friends you have and the quality of these friendships. The number of true friends you have might be much lower than the 150 maximum, but they are likely of high quality. Again, the limitation is one of cognitive resources.

I would also argue that online friends can well be true friends. But they make the same demands on resources and you should spend your cognitive resources wisely.

1Dunbar, R., (2010). How Many Friends Does One Person Need? Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks. Harvard University Press.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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