Robin Dunbar proposed that humans are capable of maintaining social relationships with about 150 people. At first this number may seem too small, especially for someone with a thousand “friends” on social media. But if you raise the bar a little on who you consider a friend, 150 may seem too large.
A couple examples given in support of Dunbar’s number are that you might have around 150 people at a funeral, or maybe 300 at a wedding. Of course there’s variance around these numbers. Some people may have a personal Dunbar number of 300, but probably not 3,000.
I suspect there’s something like a conservation law for friendship. We only have so much emotional capacity and time, but we can choose how we concentrate or disperse these limited resources.
I recently started rereading Surprised by Joy, a sort of autobiography of C. S. Lewis. A section I read this morning made me think about Dunbar’s number.
While friendship has been by far the chief source of my happiness, acquaintance or general society has always meant little to me, and I cannot quite understand why a man should wish to know more people than he can make real friends of.
I imagine most of us would do well to focus more on quality than quantity when it comes to friendships (and a great many other things as well).
4 thoughts on “Dunbar’s number and C. S. Lewis”
Nice connection. Thanks for sharing.
I expect there’s a similar bound on company size, where “everyone knows what everyone does”, until growth gets to a point where that is no longer true. Then it becomes compartmentalized, with the assorted politics and internal friction that accompany that transition.
You might be interested in this recent analysis of Dunbar’s number: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsbl.2021.0158
1) The key words in the Lewis quote are “wish to”. Friendship often requires investment. Acquaintance just happens. It is a consequence of how life works. It is typically possible to disinvest in it, down to near zero, without any regrettable consequences. But we have all known people who appeared determined to avoid it: and *that* requires enormous investment.
2) This is somehow related to “Coase’s ceiling”.