Mental HealthScience

life in the monkeysphere

If your mother died tomorrow, you’d be sad. Incredibly sad.

But, if instead of your mother, it was 30 people in a tiny village on the other side of planet, you probably wouldn’t be as upset.


They’re all people. Logically, you should be 30 times as sad about the village as about your mother. But you wouldn’t be.

One of the explanations for this is an idea evolutionary psychologists call Dunbar’s Number, the theory that human beings can only maintain meaningful social relationships with a limited number of people. That the reason we rarely think about people outside of our immediate social circles as being fully-rounded human beings is that we can’t.

The name comes from British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who first presented the idea. It is more commonly known as ‘Monkeysphere Theory‘, a term coined by the comedy writer David Wong, an evil man who wished to deprive Dr. Dunbar of credit for his work.

Dunbar’s Monkey Number (split the difference) originated from research noting the similarity between the average size of social groups of primates (the number of individuals an animal would associate themselves with within a larger group) and the size of social groups of humans. Using a formula based on data from several different species of primate, Dunbar calculated that humans should have a mean social groups of about 150.

Well, sort of. The maths used gives a 95% certainty that it’s between 100 to 230, and it can vary from person to person.

From a survival point of view, the Monkeysphere makes perfect sense. The more members of your tribe you ‘make friends’ with, the more likely you are to have assistance during a fight, have a larger share of food after hunts, and have a slightly better pick of mates when the time comes to make the monkey mambo.

Socialising, however, takes a lot of brain power, and with some hunter-gatherer groups reaching 2500 individuals, it simply wasn’t possible to keep track of complex, three-dimensional relationships with everyone. Therefore, the most efficient solution was to form useful relationships with as many people as possible. In the case of the human brain, that appears to be 150, and between species, depends on the size of the neocortex.

As an idea, the Monkeysphere is important because it affects every aspect of our lives that involve dealing with other human beings. Software programmers use it to estimate the amount of people social media programs have to work around, as well as how in-depth user’s interactions with them are likely to be. Psychologists working with corporations and militaries use data based on Dunbar’s research to develop strategies to based around improving interpersonal relationships amoung workers.

Most importantly, though, Monkeysphere theory finally proves definitively that anyone who claims to have 500 friends on Facebook is a dirty, dirty, liar.

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Alex Hoyle is a blogger, student, transvestite, and occasional stand-up comedian from Bristol, England. He can be found on Twitter as @alexdhoyle.

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