You actually know more people than you think
All the literature and studies that claim that people can only build relationships with maximum of 150 other people is only half true. The “150” number is often referred to as the Dunbar number after anthropologist Robin Dunbar. As covered in Gladwell’s Tipping Point and CommonSenseAdvice:
Dunbar has 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 gives us the maximum expected group size for each species. For humans, the max group size is 147.8, or about 150. This figure seems to represent the maximum amount of people that we can have a real social relationship with – knowing who another human is and how they relate to us.
Dunbar’s number is often misinterpreted to mean that you can only remember information on 150 people. But that’s not accurate, especially with the help of technology and other social utilities. Traditionally this 150 number meant the average person can only have a deep and meaningful relationship with 150 people.
But most relationships aren’t deep and meaningful … and they need not be bidirectional. If you just want to keep up on someone’s life (and know the ins and outs of where they are working, who they are dating, and when they are doing, you can easily keep track of thousands of people … and you do.
Even outside of using any external or web utilities, the human brain has the capacity to keep billions of discreet pieces of information. To better understand this, we can look at vocabulary:
According to study by Paul Nation and Robert Waring, most educated people in the United States have a vocabulary of at least 20,000 English words. Each word has a denoted and connoted meaning, many have a story (past tense, plural, etc), and often they invoke a picture. We have relationship with words much like we do with people, yet have a connection with 20,000 of them is not uncommon.
And not only do we keep track of words, we keep track of people.
Are you a sports fan? When I was in high school I could tell you the stats of almost every major league baseball player. I had a “relationship” with all of them (even though none of them ever heard of me).
And any avid reader of Us Magazine or Pop Sugar has an intimate relationship with hundreds (if not thousands) of stars. Many people know more about Britney Spears than they do about their next door neighbor. Or maybe you are a political junkie. You’ll know the ins and outs and the total biographies of Bill Clinton, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, and George Washington.
A person even has direct relationships with thousands of people over the years from your teachers in grade school to members of a softball team. My guess is that the average educated person can track over 10,000 people (though it would be tough to do a study to prove it) and people who are connectors and use internet tools might be able to track 30,000. and yes, that’s a lot more than 150!
Back to Dunbar … Dunbar’s number is probably a minimum, not a maximum, number of social relationships a human can have. If you are in a “tribe”, splitting into 150 person units makes sense. But if you are a social human, you can potentially be a part of many “tribes” and build different relationships and experiences in all of them. Back in prehistoric times, we may have only had the opportunity to be a part of one clan, but today we can be a part of many.