Unless you’re especially interested in social psychology, the name Robin Dunbar probably doesn’t mean much to you. Actually, I am into social psych and theories of relationships, but the name didn’t register with me either until I made the association with a cognitive theory of friendship/relationships called “Dunbar’s Number.” First presented in a book of his back in 2010, the theory soon became a popular concept in business training, no doubt seen as especially relevant to professional networking and building relationships with customers and clients — once the U.S. Supreme Court effectively recognized corporations as people (Citizens United v. Federal Election Communication, 2010).
Dunbar, a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist at Oxford University, has recently published a new book, Friends: Understanding the Power of Our Most Important Relationships (Little Brown, 2021), in which he explores deeper aspects of human relationships and explains his theory more completely. (Too completely, according to some reviewers, in that the 346 page tome is dense with studies and data.) Simply stated, “Dunbar’s Number” is 150, roughly the maximum number of people with whom most of us can maintain a steady relationship at any one time. That’s about the average number of guests invited to a pre-pandemic wedding or special celebration, or the number of recipients on a Christmas card list. These are people who are part of our greater social network, people we value and with whom we want to maintain some level of personal connection. But, according to Dunbar, those choices boil down to cognitive capacity: how many specific interests can you identify and share, how many important dates and events can you acknowledge, how many names can you even remember???
Think of those 150 people as your “emotional contacts list,” even though they don’t all demand the same level of interaction and attention. Rather, we move in an ever-widening series of concentric circles, with a very few (3 to 5) being our most intimate friends on whom we rely for personal support and affection; another 15-20 close friends whom we engage regularly and enjoy sharing social activities and interests with; and a third level of perhaps another 25-50 casual friends who are professional colleagues or organizational cohorts. The rest of our larger social circle is composed of people with whom we have, or have had at one time, a special connection worth honoring and maintaining. We stay in touch with these people on a somewhat regular basis, as they are certainly more than mere acquaintances, but are not intimately involved in our day-to-day lives. (This explains why those long, single-spaced Christmas letters full of illness and catastrophe or minute details about people we don’t even know make our eyes roll after the first paragraph — if there areany paragraphs.)
Dunbar’s Number actually explains various social interactions and responses. For example, he includes relatives in his 150 number, which explains why people with large families often have fewer friends outside that family (no time, no energy). When they do develop outside friends, they often describe them with the ultimate compliment of being “just like family.” Certainly, family members, even distant relatives, can prove to be close and abiding friends, but they can also fall well outside those concentric circles until they are regarded as little more than mere acquaintances encountered at family reunions (where no, we can’t remember their names).
Friendships change as people and circumstances change; people move away, fall seriously ill, adopt some extreme political or religious position, become miffed at a perceived slight, get married or divorced or widowed — any of these things can change the dynamics of a relationship, causing some friends to move up in our social circle and others to fade in importance. Inevitably, we lose some friends and we gain some new ones, but unfortunately, as we age, the former is more frequent and the latter is less so. A great sadness of old, old age is that one steadily outlives one’s friends just as physical and mental infirmities impose limitations and reduce opportunities to forge new relationships. I have not yet arrived at old, old age, but yet have already outlived six of my closest friends whom I miss and think about almost every day.
We all need friends, people who understand and accept us as we are, who know our history so well that we don’t have to constantly explain ourselves or excuse how we’re feeling. Gaining that kind of understanding and acceptance takes time, however — years to build the kind of relationship that lasts beyond the temporary accidents of lifestyle, career, or location. I am proud to say that my oldest friend of over 70 years shared a playpen with me when we were barely toddlers. She was the maid of honor in my wedding and is still a close friend and confidant after all these years. I have a couple friends from elementary school, a couple from college, and several from my early married years. Except for a short time, I have rarely ever lived near any of my closest friends, and I still don’t. But I work at holding on to people, because I know that sustaining friendship does not depend on the proximity of time or distance.
Among other lessons, the isolation of the Covid pandemic underscored the value of friendship and taught us ways that we can nurture our relationships without regular physical contact. In a world where humor, common courtesy, and consideration for others is sorely lacking and where we have resorted to teaching social and emotional skills in schools, the adaptations we discovered to counter Covid isolation are worth remembering going forward. Phone calls, greeting cards, personal notes and letters, e-mails, funny messages, Zoom visits — any and all abate loneliness and keep us connected regardless of the climate of the times. They sustain friendship.
And we all need friends, though not necessarily 150 of them. Human beings are social animals, after all. Even the misanthropes among us yearn for interaction with others, if only to commiserate with someone else about how awful people really are!