S7 Ep01: The Science of Relationships

Dr Robin Dunbar

Robin Dunbar is a British anthropologist, an evolutionary psychologist and a specialist in primate behaviour. He’s also currently Head of the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford. He developed Dunbar’s Number theory in 1992, which suggests that the number of relationships our brain is able to maintain is limited to 150.

Top Tips From This Episode

In this podcast, Dr. Dunbar raises a number of questions around why we need to maintain close relationships and the science behind the number of 150.

Start with your circle of 5, 10, 15, 35, 150. Are all of these relationships serving you well? Are they meaningful and bringing you a sense of fulfilment? Are any of them toxic? Since your life is constantly changing, you may find that the people in these number circles change over time.

Friends are expensive, it takes large amounts of effort and energy it takes to maintain a friendship. Prioritising your meaningful relationships allows you to maintain stability, memories and connections.

Episode Highlights

How to use the theory as a tool to weaponize our social interactions

Understand the effects that relationships have on your life and success and how to utilise this for excellence.

Look to the past

We dived into Dunbar’s theory looking at the study of human behaviour within past, present and future societies, the need for social interaction and a wanting to be liked.  Looking at today’s society, we’re still exhibiting this evolutionary habit. Looking into the future, one can only imagine how technology could possibly alter our 150 relationship capacity.

Be mindful of the unexpected

You know the saying ‘dog is man’s best friend’? Well, your dog could be part of your top 5.  Also counted are micro-interactions, such as smiling at your barista, smiling at a stranger. They all count in your 150. Everything adds up.

Onions have layers, friends have layers

Looking at friendship, the deeper the layer, the deeper the trust.

Top quotes:

[42:33] By engaging through social media you’re avoiding that face to face contact… research tends to suggest very strongly that you know Facebook, texting, phone calls, Skype etc. work well enough but they seem to function more like sticking plasters over the cracks that would otherwise occur when you can’t physically sit down across the table and have a beer with somebody.  There’s nothing to really replace face to face contact in terms of its quality for relationship building.

These digital mechanisms that we now have, as efficient and effective as they are, all they do is slow down the rate at which relationships decay through not actually seeing each other. They won’t stop that friendship eventually becoming an acquaintance. It’s probably not going to happen with your best mate…  but that second layer grouping, FaceBook and the like will paper over those cracks and slow it down a bit, but it won’t work forever and partly goes back to the fact that there is something slightly artificial about these digital environments.


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