Good news for those with thriving social lives.
Back in the early 90s, a British anthropologist by the name of Robin Dunbar posited that a single human being can only maintain a maximum of 150 stable relationships with other people. To clarify, that number’s only for casual friendships, not intimate ones; according to Dunbar, the size of the human brain is indicative of how many names, faces, personalities, and so forth a person could realistically retain.
According to a team of Swedish researchers, though, that figure is a drastic oversimplification of a human’s ability to socialize. As explained by a study published in Biology Letters, the variability in human relationships is nearly impossible to nail down entirely, but at the very least, we can have more than 150 casual friends.
“What we did was to replicate Dunbar’s original analysis but with more data and updated statistical methods,” Patrik Lindenfors, a zoological ecologist at the Institute for Futures Studies in Stockholm, told Gizmodo. “Our main point is that the 95% confidence interval is way too large to make it possible to state any one number, as Dunbar did.”
A new study calls into question "Dunbar's number," which many take to mean that humans are only capable of having 150 people in their social circle.
— Abigail Rubenstein (@AMRubenstein) May 5, 2021
In addition to his 150 casual friendships, Dunbar posited multiple other ranges of social interaction. He believed that an average person could name 1,500 people, be acquainted with 500, have 50 slightly closer friends, 15 genuinely close friends, and five intimately close friends or loved ones. The problem with Dunbar’s theory, though, is that it was posited before the internet existed. With the advent of social networking, the human definition of “friend” has drastically changed compared to 30 years ago.
“Culture affects everything from size of social networks to whether we can play chess or if we like hiking,” said co-author Johan Lind, a cognitive scientist at Stockholm University, in a university release. “Just like someone can learn to remember an enormous number of decimals in the number pi, our brain can be trained in having more social contacts.”