What could be the ideal number of people we can connect with? It is a tricky question. To answer this question, we have to clarify and define the meaning of connection. How about family members? How about close friends? How about acquaintances?
Or, what could be the ideal number of people for an optimal organization? Again, we have to clarify and define the meaning of such an organization. It could be a tribal group, corporation, nation-state, or even social media group.
On these questions, Dunbar’s number is one of the intriguing concepts. It is a cognitive limit to the number of people that we could maintain social relationships to recognize one another face to face. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested this number, based on human brain size, which could be more or less 150.
150 is the size of a tribal group. To maintain the tribal community, regardless of our ethnocultural background, the number of members could be more or less 150. If it reaches more than 300, for example, the group may be divided into two as we are not comfortable instinctively with the larger size where we can’t keep our face-to-face relationship.
What about the organization that consists of thousands of members? How about the nation-state?
In these large-scale groups, we can no longer keep our face-to-face relationship. It’s beyond our cognitive limit. Thus, we need a system, called institutionalization. To maintain the large size of the group, therefore, the system overrides our face-to-face relationship. In it, we can no longer meet everyone personally. We need the media that describes people we have to keep in mind but can’t know personally, especially those leaders of the group we belong to.
Religions have also gone through the same developmental path. As well-known, Christianity started from a small group of twelve disciples. This size is even much smaller than 150. Perhaps, once ten of this small group gathered together, reaching around 120, the basis of the initial church could be ready.
Once this number reached 500 to 1,000, however, people would inevitably face the divisions, even conflicts, leading them into a number of small churches. And each church has its own leader. Whether we like or not, Dunbar’s number controls us. We can’t escape from it
Even in the days of Apostle Paul, people encountered the same situation.
For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?1 Corinthians 1:11-13
To maintain the larger size of the group and organization, we need systems, institutions, and media. Some are bureaucratic, others are MLM-like. We no longer act for people we can see and feel, but for the mechanism that maintains the systems, institutions, and media. There would be a risk of manipulations that a small set of leaders would gain a big chunk of privileges by abusing the mechanism.
Around this Dunbar number, then we could visualize the graduation of human relationship as follows:
- 5: Core-family and partnership
- 15: Extended family members and core-kinship
- 50: Extended kinship and a small tribe
- 150: Tribe and a cognitive limit for face to face relationship
- 500: Core organization that requires its system
- 1,000: Organizations that require their systems
- 5,000 and more: Institutions
The tricky part is the system. It is a mechanism that we can maintain social relationships without knowing people personally, without face-to-face relationships.
It could be useful, at the same time, harmful if we abuse it. Various corruptions, scandals, and social conflicts are because of abusing this mechanism from the nation-state bureaucracy to MLM networking to large-scale cult grouping. A small number of leaders can gain a huge chunk of benefit and control the rest. One of their powerful tools could be the media strategy. It’s so easy to make anyone charismatic whom the rest of the people in the organization passionately worship. We have to be cautious about the antichrist.
And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever. Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.1 John 2:17-18
Even in ancient times, Lao Tzu knew this danger. That is why, in Tao Te Ching, he advised that a small country had fewer people. We should not abuse any devices to make our organization faster and harmful. He also suggested a sort of his Dumbar number. We should keep the size of our life to the extent that we can hear roosters and dogs in distance.
Let every state be simple like a small village with few people. There may be tools to speed things up ten or a hundred times yet no one will care to use them. There may be boats and carriages yet they will remain without riders. There may be armor and weaponry yet they will sit collecting dust.
The people must take death seriously and not waste their lives in distant lands. Let them return to the knotting of cord. Let them enjoy their food and care for their clothing. Let them be content in their homes and joyful in the way they live.
Neighboring villages are within sight of each other. Roosters and dogs can be heard in the distance. Should a man grow old and die without ever leaving his village. Let him feel as though there was nothing he missedVerse 80, Tao Te Ching
Image by Jörg Peter