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The Dunbar number: re-evaluate your social life with evolutionary science

ByLydia Watson

Jan 25, 2017

There comes a point within everybody’s time at university when you’d honestly rather sit in bed with a pizza, illegally watching a box set on BBC iPlayer, than leave the flat and be a sociable human being. The absolute freedom of university that allows you to be in your pyjamas one minute and cracking open a bottle of wine the next extends both ways; there’s also the freedom to wave your flatmate off to an exciting party and then turn back to the fridge and the many delights it holds. But sometimes, alongside the joy in being unsociable, also comes The Fear.

The Fear is feeling isolated and anxious at the prospect of yet another thriving social event. The Fear is the sinking feeling that descends on a really shit night out. The time may well come when you look uneasily at the people you’ve been breezily referring to as your best pals and see them staring uneasily back at you; the mutual realisation that one or all of you has changed, suddenly and irrevocably, has ruined many a relationship.

The fact is that social groups tend to disintegrate as students get older, friendships get complicated and connections start to splinter. This is the point at which the Fear can really take a hold, because when you can’t even say for sure who your friends are, what does that say about yourself?

However, despite the steady dwindling of confidantes as university gets harder, hangovers get more intense and tolerance takes a rapid nosedive, there is solace to be found in evolutionary science. In the 1980s. the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar came up with the ‘Dunbar number’ – the theoretical number of people we as humans have the brain capacity to maintain a social relationship with. The number is usually cited as 150, but is broken down into various social ‘layers’ – like a sociable onion – with a core group of five friends and the next layer consisting of another ten. These fifteen people, Dunbar stated, and particularly the first five, are the most important for mental and physical wellbeing. The rest, as the saying goes, are merely landscape.

The Dunbar number may be theoretical, but it does coincide with other social experiments, lending it some validity. Conducted by various bodies ranging from The Guardian to a survey by Time Sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences, these experiments generally come up with the same result: that the average adult will claim to have between only two and six ‘close friends’. The remaining 144-148 of their social circle is made up of co-workers, close family, distant family, frenemies, regulars at the pub, flatmates from first year; an endless list of people you see on a fairly regular basis and remember the name of and some significant life facts. The point is, there are lots of them, but they’re generally irrelevant.

So how can the Dunbar number be reassuring for those who are suddenly seriously doubting their social life? First off, it means that it’s OK to be brutal. Admit that the same person you used to drunkenly pledge lifelong allegiance with in first year is now unrecognisable to you in photographs; they are now firmly in the third or even fourth layer of your personal social sphere. Acknowledge that forcing yourself to get out of bed in order to attend a flat party you are wildly unenthusiastic about is actually counter-productive.

Essentially, it’s OK to be unsociable, because according to Dunbar, we’re only supposed to have five real friends anyway.

Image: Shutterstock

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