Opinions, Column

Filtering Your Friends

Log onto Facebook, look all the way to your left, and click the “Birthdays” tab. Now, honestly ask yourself how many of those people are you going to write to, either on their walls or via message. Out of that number, ask how many you would say “Happy Birthday” to in person. Finally, out of that number, for how many did you actually know it was their birthday without Facebook informing you? You might see where this is going. But, in case you have justified every one of those, navigate on over to your own Facebook page. Click the “All Friends” button and type a random letter into the space bar. Can you honestly say you would be comfortable wishing every single one of those people a happy birthday, in person? Do you know the actual birthday of even 20 percent?

If you are honest with yourself, it probably becomes overwhelmingly clear that your Facebook is a little cluttered, but that, then, begs the question-just how many Facebook friends should you have? Well, assuming your Facebook friends are actually friends-which is what the title implies-the magic number is 150, according to the experts. In other words, that is the number of meaningful relationships, or true friendships, you are able to hold at any given point (give or take a few for the introverts who consider Netflix their best friend and the extroverts who consider everyone their best friend).

Where did this number come from? It was determined 10 years ago by Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist, after studying the Christmas-card-sending habits of the English. Dunbar determined that the people to whom one sends cards during the holiday season are those with whom they maintain meaningful enough relationships that they are willing to put the investment of time-and money-into wishing a “Merry Christmas.”

While seemingly based on an arbitrary habit of one specific-and often overly polite-society, the number actually appears over and over again in both current and past societies. In today’s world, many companies have noticed a decrease in productivity and community once the number of employees surpassed 150. The size of the smallest military unit, the company, has continued to be around 150 for all of Western military history. Even ancient hunter-gatherer communities all over the world are known to have been comprised of a number that, without fail, hovers around 150 people. In today’s society, this number is, of course, flexible in certain cases, but only in one direction. While it is common for someone to have fewer than 150 relationships, this number has been biologically determined to be the maximum. Believe it or not, the science behind the number relies on brain size. Scientists believe-and have substantial proof-that brain size evolved in primates to allow them to become social and stopped evolving when social capacity exceeded its beneficial use. In other words, social activity was beneficial to man for survival, but having too many in a group caused competition for food and resources. Thus, through evolution and natural selection, mankind has arrived at a brain size-and a social capacity-that has facilitated survival and reproduction for thousands of years.

So, now that your relationship capabilities have been reduced to mere scientific fact, the question remains: What are the implications of this fact? What exactly happens if you try to defy nature? After all, the years of education are the most social you experience, and your Facebook clearly states that you are quite the social butterfly. Well, if you attempt to maintain a high number of relationships, you become stretched too thin. Relationships become casual and depth is lost. Furthermore, so is the sense of loyalty, responsibility and belonging. Sure, maybe 300 people know your name, but how many of those will know you at your best and at your worst, will know your hopes and dreams, will know the inner workings of your soul? And more importantly, how many of those would you want to know these things?

As Dunbar explains, the 150 is made of “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them at a bar, ” and, while one can assume the number increases as the drink intake does, it is unlikely those are the people you want to form meaningful relationships with anyway. So drop those who don’t matter, and put effort into those who do. After all, it’s only natural.

Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.


March 19, 2014