From My Commonplace Book - 34 - size of social groups

from The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

by Malcolm Gladwell

. . . To be someone's best friend requires a minimum investment in time. More than that, though, it takes emotional energy. Caring about someone deeply is exhausting. At a certain point, somewhere between 10 and 15 people, we begin to overload. . . .


Humans socialize in the largest groups of all primates because we are the only animals with brains large enough to handle the social complexities of that social arrangement. [Robin] Dunbar has actually developed an equation, which works for most primates, in which he plugs in what he calls the neocortex ratio of a particular species -- the size of the neocortex relative to the size of the brain -- and the equation spits out the expected maximum group size of the animal. If you plug in the neocortex size for Homo sapiens, you get a group estimate of 147.8 -- or roughly 150. The number 150 seems to be the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us. . . .

Dunbar has combed through the anthropological literature and found that number 150 pops up again and again.

Malcom Gladwell (Canadian, born 1963) is the best-selling author of such non-fiction books as -- besides The Tipping Point -- Blink and Outliers. He lives in New York City and writes for The New Yorker.


Hi Merry - I think I must have failed these figures by an ocean - though very interesting and the idea of a maximum possible for more meaningful interaction.
Hi, Enid.

I read The Tipping Point some time ago, and only have the excerpt above on hand, but I don't think that Malcolm Gladwell discussed what qualifies as "meaningful interaction."

But I'm sure I don't have the energy to be close friends with even 10 people.

As for the 150 figure, I do remember that he gave examples. The population of each Hutterite community is about 150 individuals, and when the community grows beyond that figure, the community splits in two.

And W. L. Gore and Associates, which manufactures, among many other things, the fabric Gore-Tex, keeps each of its facilities at about 150 employees. Here's some information from the company website about the company's unique culture:

". . . Gore has been a team-based, flat lattice organization that fosters personal initiative. There are no traditional organizational charts, no chains of command, nor predetermined channels of communication.

"Instead, we communicate directly with each other and are accountable to fellow members of our multi-disciplined teams. We encourage hands-on innovation, involving those closest to a project in decision making. Teams organize around opportunities and leaders emerge. This unique kind of corporate structure has proven to be a significant contributor to associate satisfaction and retention."

Fortune has named it one of the top 100 companies to work for.
How interesting, I have heard of the 150 number before. I didn't realise that "genuinely social relationship" in this context meant "the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us." (I hope I know more than 150 people and remember how they relate to me!)

As for keeping close with people, I think most people would be very happy to have 10 close friends... but of course, in our situation, this would be very exhausting. :)
Thank you, Purple, for your input.

I can name 150 people and more and say how I know them, but few of them do I actually have contact with.

Since I discovered Phoenix Rising, I have been wondering how online groups function (or don't) as communities, and thinking about numbers, but wondering hasn't taken me very far.
Perhaps a question of "we are all this together" here on PR - large numbers sharing and looking for the answer - winning or losing friends so to speak par for the course. Amazing how one can find (maybe not one's own interests) but just enormously and naturally kind people. Perhaps this kind of analysis doesn't lend itself to this illness but then I'm no counter - enough to feel lucky though. Gad to hear you've good friends Merry.

Blog entry information

Last update

More entries in User Blogs

More entries from Merry