Podcast TTT

Season 2 Episode 51: The Trio on Dunbar’s Number

Welcome to Tea, Toast and Trivia.

Thank you for listening in.  

Today is Thanksgiving Day in Canada.  What better time than today to discussion the idea of friendship?

I am joined by my mother, Frances, and my sister, Sarah, to consider Dunbar’s number, which is a theoretical limit to the number of people with whom any individual can sustain a stable or meaningful social relationship.  This term was first proposed in the 1990’s by Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist and psychologist.  The number that is suggested is 150 people.

Does Dunbar’s number signify friendship?  How do we define friendship?  Is friendship the same as a stable or meaningful social relationship?  

We invite you to put the kettle on and add to the conversation.  We would love to hear your thoughts on

I am your host Rebecca Budd and I am looking forward to sharing this moment with you.

The Trio on Dunbar's Number Tea. Toast. & Trivia.

By Rebecca Budd

Blogger, Visual Storyteller, Podcaster, Traveler and Life-long Learner

13 replies on “Season 2 Episode 51: The Trio on Dunbar’s Number”

As always, a warm and honest discussion touching on friendship. There are indeed levels of intimacy, vulnerability, depth and authenticity with different friends whether virtual or in person. I really look forward to The Trio’s future discussion about what friendship actually entails. I agree with you all that Dunbar is off base. Friendship isn’t quantitative; it’s qualitative! I’m so blessed to have you, Rebecca, as a virtual friend. And when one knows that someone has at times had one in their thoughts and prayers, you pass beyond mere acquaintance into something more profound and beyond measure. A symphony indeed! Hugs and more hugs to you and yours!

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You words are a marvelous testament to friendship, Mary Jo. The idea of belonging of being valued and embraced is essential for wellbeing. We have developed benchmarks and analytic models to determined our level of being “liked” and we have substituted these tools as a proxy for a friendship. By the way, I happened to stop by for a few minutes to visit Sarah and Frances today. This is what I’m thinking for our next Trio podcast. Do you recall the phrase: “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep”? Here’s the question: Which is easier to do – rejoice or weep? I have given them a few days to consider this question. Thank you for listening in and for your heartwarming comments. Sending many hugs along with my gratitude. j

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This was a brilliantly perceptive conversation by three very astute people. For what it is worth I came across the dunbar number (although I did not know it was called that) in relation to early post hunter gather societies in Steven Mithen’s book After the Ice. As I understood it the number relates to the size of an ideal village community whereby social cohesion is achieved through everyone knowing the other. There is early archeological evidence for the number- they count the remains of village hearth fires in communities such as the Natufians – a people who lived a partly settled non-farming lifestyle following the antilope herds and subsisting on wild grasses – later domesticated to wheat and barley.
It is very much what your sister Sarah said about the family value group. She also said it was a large number for the modern age. I agree with her. Our society is based on the individual and today we are much more physically and mentally peripatetic, often inpursuit of our own goals.
Where I live there are people who can trace theiir ancestors back hundreds of years in the same valley. I am not one of them.
The number makes a lot more sense when you consider it within small isolated societies. Many tribes are extended families like modern indiginous Amazonians or the San of the Kalahari.
Personally I agree with your mum’s definition of friendship and how she cannot share her life with too many people. And what you echoed Rebecca when you said the number of contacts or relationships one has does not mean it is a friend number.

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Thank you Paul for adding depth and breadth to this conversion. I had never heard about Natufians so I have been having a wonderful time learning more about them. Friendship is complex for there are so many nuances that are subconscious, which gives structure to our interactions. And then there are the friendships we have with imaginary people who we meet in books, people who have lived in the past and our four legged friends who change our lives with their love and loyalty. There is a richness that comes from friendship. Perhaps the best friend that we have is ourselves. I was reading Marcus Aurelius today and came across this thought: “I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.” I am delighted that we have connected and look forward to many conversations that are waiting for our arrival. Take care – sending hugs and thanks.

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I loved this episode. I am one who believes you can never have too many friends. I love making new friends and keep in touch with old ones. I have found it amazing, especially during this pandemic time, how I have come to know my on-line friends. Two of these friends have been diagnosed with cancer within the last two months. Although we have not met in person, we have all been offering support and love as they go through this tough time. I agree, this topic could be discussed much more. It was wonderful to hear from your mother and sister as well. Happy, belated but sincere, Thanksgiving. Having friends is something I am always thankful for. xo

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How wonderful to read your comments, Darlene. Thank you for adding depth and breadth to this conversation.! A fabulous start to my week. These past months of what I call the Covid19 solitude, has revealed our tenacity and determination to stay connected and develop virtual communities that thrive on knowledge, wisdom and experience. It is heartwarming to feel this sense of belonging. Together, we are resilient. Please let your friends know that they are in my thoughts. Thank you for connecting. I am looking forward to the many wonderful conversations waiting for our arrival. Hugs!

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I’d never heard of the Dunbar number until listening to this discussion by The Trio. My immediate thought was that 150 seems very arbitrary. Why not 149 or 151? I assume the 150 figure is to make the point in a concrete way that there is a limit to the number of social relationships we each can maintain. My next thought was that social relationships and friendships aren’t necessarily the same thing.

The question of Rebecca’s that caught my attention was whether it is possible to develop and maintain friendships in the virtual world. I would say the answer is yes because of the power of writing to communicate our authentic selves (of course, it can communicate very inauthentically as well). When this really hit home for me was when I made the transition from teaching face-to-face to teaching online. I was concerned that I would miss getting to know the students when we weren’t in the same room together. What I found to my surprise was that I got to know my students better in the virtual environment than I did in the classroom–and it was through their writing.

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I think that there was a great deal of statistical analysis in Dunbar’s number. It would be interesting to know the standard deviation, the outliers etc. I can only imagine the graphs and charts. YIKES! I agree social relationships and friendships are not necessarily the same. Your thoughts on virtual friendships were very interesting, given that we are escalating the progress into virtual communities. A couple of days ago, I read an NPR article about Zoom calls and decreasing productivity etc: Because of the rapid deployment of virtual offices, classrooms, meeting rooms, we are entering a time where we are going to test the waters on virtual connection. Does it work over long periods? Will our cultural values change? Will our need for human touch and belonging be influenced? What about the arts? Much of creative endeavor is within community – choirs, bands, plays, operas. Will will be able to transition this type of activity to a virtual space? We were well on our way to a more virtual world, but at a slower pace. I agree – writing will be key in our new reality. It is an essential component of friendship, connection and moving forward with shared interests. I enjoy our conversations, Liz. Thank you.

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