No, but there are some interesting theories on who those friends really are.
Can you have too many friends? Well, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar seems to think you can. Dunbar observed a bunch of different social groups from different times in human history and found a few interesting trends. Like we can only have so many friends before some of those people fade out of our lives. So what is Dunbar’s Number and how true is it?
Who is Dunbar?
Robin Dunbar is a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist. That means he studies human behavior, cultures, and societies and how those groups adapt to benefit everyone.
Dunbar took a special interest in the size of groups and how well they interacted and at what size the groups shifted or split. He noticed that no matter where the groups were, they followed a similar pattern: at a certain size, how they worked together changed, and after a while, they would often split up into smaller groups.
The six groups
Dunbar has six groups that the average person belongs to. Dunbar labeled these groups:
This group has about five people according to Dunbar. These are the people you interact with every day, whose lives are so tangled with yours that what they do affects you deeply. These are the people we love: our closest family.
This group caps out at around 15 people. You probably talk to these people every day or at least every week. You know who they are, what makes them tick, and what’s going on in their lives. When things go wrong, you can rely on them for help.
These are people you see regularly. It’s not weird if you hang out, but you wouldn’t call them in an emergency. This group is about 35 people.
Friends, Dunbar’s Number
This is where Dunbar built his theory. Groups of more than 150 start to become inefficient. He noticed this in indigenous groups throughout time and in modern groups like the Amish. When they got bigger than 150 people, they usually split because maintaining the society becomes difficult.
Sure these groups can be larger, or smaller, but on average, 150 is the ideal group size. Many companies use this number as a way of staying efficient and small, yet still being able to take on large tasks.
These are people you recognize and know by name. Classmates you don’t talk with much, maybe a neighbor the next street over. It’s about 500 people in size. These people aren’t important enough in your life to make any drastic change, but you may reach out to them from time to time.
You see these people from time to time. You might talk to them briefly—maybe the cashier at the store or someone you see on the bus sometimes. You probably don’t know anything about them, but you know you’ve seen them before and recognize them. This caps out at about 1,500 people.
While most of these numbers are rough averages, they do stand true most of the time. Psychologically, we only have so much bandwidth to deal with other people. By putting them into categories, even unknowingly, it helps us maintain healthier relationships with the smaller groups. So think about your family, your close friends, maybe your class at school, then the school itself. These groups probably are close to what Dunbar theorized.