Everyone I know seems to be in a funk. That includes me. To say 2020 has been tough is a worn-out understatement. For some of our country, the results of today’s election will brighten their mood, but it won’t eliminate our collective dis-ease. There will still be many others who are angry and scared. Add to that a COVID-19 resurgence, anxiety about the economy, instability around work and school, and social unrest. Sadly, none of this will suddenly disappear come Inauguration Day.
Many things contribute to this malaise. I think one of them—perhaps a major one—is the disruption in our social lives. We can all count relationships that have taken a sabbatical in 2020. Others only happen masked and six feet apart, or mediated via technology. Part of our funk is this reduction—both in quantity and quality—of our relationships.
Scientists tell us we are a highly social species. Our minds and bodies are built for interpersonal connections. Isolation is not good for any of us, even the most introverted. Facial expression, physical touch, and body language are all crucial ways we engage and thrive as social beings.
We are knit in our mother’s womb for in-person community and a wide circle of friends.
How big of a circle of friends? This is not the number of Facebook friends or Instagram followers. How many people can you be in relationship with?
British anthropologist Robin Dunbar found that number to be about 150. The so-called Dunbar’s number applies both to our individual network of relationships and to cohesive groups. Dunbar found it applies to groups as diverse as military companies, Neolithic villages, (in his terms) “ideal church congregations,” the upper limit for employees in an office or factory, hunter-gatherer groups, and even our Christmas card networks. Even on Facebook most of us do not interact regularly with more than Dunbar’s number. Larger groups are unlikely to cohere or endure.
Dunbar’s number can be shown in rings: our inner circle consists of 5 persons, with a second ring of 10 really close friends/family, followed by a wider ring of 35 friends. Next is the largest ring of 100 “casual friends.” We can have another 500 acquaintances and may even put a name to a face for a total of 1,500 persons, but 150 is the number of relationships that we invest in and maintain.
Why is this so? Dunbar offers two reasons: cognitive capacity and time. His research on primate populations suggests that brain size is associated with our relationship capacity. Primates with larger social groups have larger brains, specifically the ratio between the neocortex and the rest of the brain. This ratio is high in humans and Dunbar used it to project the number—148—for human groups.
Time is the other factor here. We must invest time to maintain relationships. There are simply not enough hours and minutes to maintain larger networks. In fact, Dunbar found that our inner circle occupies about 50% of our time and that the first two rings occupy about 75% of our time. That leaves very little time to spread over the remaining 130 relationships.
Dunbar’s research includes two additional findings worth sharing:
- Romantic relationships are so intense that they account for two of the five persons in our inner circle.
- The actual number of people in each ring varies. Introverts often have less than 150 but tend to create larger and deeper innermost circles. Extroverts may exceed 150, but they frequently have fewer in the inner rings.
- Fifteen-minutes with Dunbar’s TEDx talk is a great way to learn about his research and get a few laughs.
- Or read about it in this article.
- Scientific American summarizes the findings about brain size and relational capacity.
- Psychologist Sarah Rose Kavanaugh describes the rings of relationships associated with Dunbar’s number.
- Dunbar’s number has its critics. Some are summarized here.
- Fuller Seminary psychologists studied how Dunbar’s number applies to ministry relationships. You can read about it at the Fuller Youth Institute and Christianity Today (subscription required).
- Our very first peek into the pandemic’s effects on relationships came in this March 2020 newsletter.
How can Dunbar’s number help us cope with the 2020 funk? Like a discussion of the science around grief or how Zoom fatigues us, it can help us understand why we are in this funk. Too many of our relationships have been weakened by doing work, school, and church remotely. God knit us to be together—talking, doing, laughing, and caring.
Our social skills and network of core relationships have atrophied. We crave an opportunity to stretch our relational muscles, but the pandemic-induced losses will not relent.
So, to get out of this funk, we probably have to look beyond science alone (although a vaccine would be welcome). We have to reconnect, safely, with those we can and grieve those relationships that have atrophied. And we have to turn to the relationship that cannot be severed. Dunbar’s number does not restrain Jesus Christ. He promises that wherever two or three gather, he will be there (Matt 18:20). He sets lower, not upper limits.
This is why my church continues to extol the idea of being together apart. Christ unites His body through the power of the Holy Spirit. Christ is with those suffering alone in a hospital. He is with us tuned into virtual worship. He is with us in school and at work. He is with our country, even in all that divides us. And He is the source that binds us with one another in each ring of relationships that comprise our unique Dunbar’s number.
Science helps us understand that we are relational beings. It helps us grasp the benefits and limits of our relationships. It can be applied to help heal and strengthen them. But only faith reassures us that, no matter what, we are not alone. Jesus tells his disciples after the resurrection—“And remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20).