Way back in 1992, Robin Dunbar estimated a limit on the human ability to maintain stable relationships. This limit is known as the Dunbar’s number, and it has a value around 150. “Dunbar’s number is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person.” To me personally, the key words here are “limit” and “stable”. In other words, there are those of us (too bold to simply say “you”) that are pushing the limits and I would question the stability of relationships when the number grows beyond 150. How many people can I really ‘know’, much less comprehend how they are are related to everyone else (unless of course they are family). In trying to play catch-up from being away last week, reading a great post did get me thinking…
Last week, Michael Wu of Lithium posted some interesting thoughts on Dunbar’s number. I would encourage you to take a look at his post, and the great conversations which often ensue. This part, where researchers suggest the number should be bigger, definitely grabbed my attention:
So what is the new Dunbar Limit? A new estimate for the average size of personal social networks has been investigated recently by Prof. Russell Bernard and Prof. Peter Killworth. This new “Dunbar limit” is roughly 291 at the height of the information revolution (before the dot.com bust). It almost doubled the original estimate by Dunbar for the pre-industrial era. However, the Barnard-Killworth estimate was derived from data prior to the social media revolution. Now, 10 years later, could the advance in social technologies today push this limit further?
Yes, no question (and I am looking forward to Michael’s further thoughts on the topic)!
From Individual to Company
If the topic is worth understanding and exploring at the individual level (which it is), I suppose it is also worth talking a look at it from a company level too, no? Isn’t that what the whole Social CRM conversation is all about? If you, as a company, are better armed with the details of your relationships with your customers, as well as how they are interconnected and interdependent, then I will suggest you are better equipped to maintain a powerful and balanced relationship with them. Based on the analysis at the individual layer (From Michael’s post):
There are two assumptions to bear in mind when talking about the Dunbar Number:
- Dunbar number applies to groups that have very high incentive (e.g. survival) to maintain social cohesion. In these groups, Dunbar speculated that 42% of the time budget is devoted to “social grooming” (for non-human primates, or socializing for humans) so that everyone knows everything about everyone else’s social relationship.
- Dunbar estimated his number with brain size data and group size data derived from 38 different primate species. Then he survey many pre-industrial villages and tribes and found their size all hover around his predicted number of 148.
Many many people are writing, blogging and talking about how to engage with your customers, have a relationship with your customers all with the purpose of better understanding your customers. I will quickly pass beyond my ability to bring this conversation home. For example if the Dunbar number is tied to the size of the Neocortex, as summarized by Michael, and the size of the Neocortex has not changed much in 300 years (industrialization timeline), then how can the number have increased? If businesses are mimicking biology, then what strategy or system best mimics the neocortex? If the organizational goal is to build and maintain relationships, beyond just connections, then a deeper understanding of these concepts does seem like time well spent…to me anyway. What are your thoughts?