The Dunbar Number

Here’s a factoid for you:  Brain capacity in social animals  depends on how much relationship information they need to manage.  “Relationship information” includes:

  • remembering your cousin’s names
  • who is dating who
  • whose kid is graduating, getting married, having a baby…
  • who owes you $20
  • who supported you in a recent office conflict
  • who helped you paint your house
  • who visited you in the hospital
  • who lied to you
  • who lied to a coworker

If you were a chimp, the list would include who groomed you the longest yesterday and who gave you some yummy leaves.  If you were a bat, it would include who shared a meal with you when you couldn’t find anything to eat.

A British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, developed a theory about the cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can manage stable social relationships.  Thus, the Dunbar Number suggests the maximum number of people we can stay connected to.  That number is generally placed around 150.

I understand lots of people misunderstand Dunbar’s work, and I’m no expert to say the number is 150 or 203.  I mention it just to acknowledge that even the most committed networker has a limit to the number of relationships he/she can support.

Robin Dunbar

Professor Robin Dunbar

The other day I mentioned Jeff Olson’s book The Slight Edge.  In it, Olson emphasizes the power of compound effort.  He writes that if you read 10 pages of a book every day, at the end of a year, you’ll have read a dozen or more books.  I suggest the same perspective on building trusted relationships.  Decide how much time, on average, you want to devote to it daily.  If you pick 10 minutes, that comes out to over 40 hours annually, even just doing it on “work” days (10 min * 5 days * 50 weeks = 2500 min / 60 min = 41.67 hr).

If you spent all that networking time meeting people for coffee, and the average time investment to meet someone were an hour, and if you wanted to connect twice annually with your most important contacts, then you could support 20 relationships that way.

My point? I thought my point was that it looks like 10 minutes daily isn’t enough.  But thinking about it, 20 trusted relationships with 20 great people might be enough to change the world.

I guess my point is to do at least a bit of something regularly.

Your thoughts?

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[Sep 22, 2010]

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