Dunbar’s Number & Meaningful Relationships

How many people are in the average personal network? Like 6 degrees of separation, ideas about the maximum number of stable relationships a person can have are in flux.

Dunbar’s number, usually estimating a cap for our networks at 150 meaningful relationships, is being reevaluated. New estimates are anywhere from 250 to 1,710 relationships, with 50% of people falling somewhere between 400 and 800.

But all of these estimates have been limited by self reported data and the need to know names of the people you interact with. The closest external view comes from an anthropological study following people in Malta for a year. They estimate that each person’s social network includes 1,000 people.

Just like in the 6 degrees of separation studies, you can see there is a difference in how many people we could name in our networks and how many we actually interact with on a daily basis. Our networks are made up of both strong and weak relationships, and they both have important roles to play in our lives. Strong relationships and close friends may seem like they hold more influence over you and your decisions, but weak relationships are known for helping with major life changes like finding a new job. And while social media keep us in contact with close friends and family, they also catalog weak bonds so you can find a specific person again when you need to.

Those weak bond connections also give us access to a constant stream of information as large as we care to follow. Contrary to popular beliefs about how social/digital media allows us to build a bubble of self-affirming ideas, a Facebook study found that “we are exposed to and spread more information from our distant contacts than our close friends.”

At a conference, I heard a presentation that might explain this. A study on teachers and influence found the decisions of teachers in direct contact actually impacted decisions less than similar others at a 2nd degree of separation. We look for what others like us are doing to decide if we want to do it, not just advice from our close friends.