How many friends can a person have? Believe it or not, science has solved this question. An anthropologist called Robin Dunbar studied various societies, tribes and primate groups to determine how many members a group can have to maintain stability. He discovered that the ideal size for a group of humans was about 150.
What happens if there are more than 150 people in a group? This is easily explained by the following thought experiment. Imagine that you have a friend called Mr. White. Add a personality to him – flesh him out as a person. Next, you make another friend called Mr. Red. Then Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Maroon… At a certain point, you will no longer remember the name or personality of your “friend” and not even care about that person. This is the limit set by our brains – known as Dunbar’s number, or more colloquially the Monkeysphere.
Any person outside of this Monkeysphere is not of your concern. Once you saturate your brain with 150 relationships, the brain ceases to care about other people. Interestingly, the Monkeysphere is directly related to the size of the neocortex (the part of the brain responsible for higher order thinking). For example, most monkeys can only operate in troupes of 50 or so.
The Monkeysphere can be defined as the group of people that you conceptualise as “people”. Because of this limitation, we are physiologically incapable of caring about everyone in the world. For example, we are highly unlikely to be concerned about the welfare of the janitor at work compared to a loved one. As politically incorrect it may be, the brain sees the janitor as “the object that cleans the building” rather than a human being. You may “care” about the janitor in the sense that you greet him in the corridor, but there is a limit to this. This effect actually explains quite well why society is dysfunctional in general.
Because we do not see people outside the Monkeysphere as “people”, they mean less to us. Stalin once said that “one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”. Similarly, the death of a family member is devastating but 10,000 people dying in a foreign country from war does not have the same emotional effect. Furthermore, if a stranger was to die in front of your eyes, you would still not be nearly as devastated as the death of someone you are close to.
Also, as we do not feel connected to these “outsiders”, we are much more prone to act rude or aggressively. For example, one may insult other drivers with the most colourful words on the road, but would (hopefully) never say those words to a friend.
This expands to a greater scale in the context of survival. We are wired to put the need of the members of our Monkeysphere ahead of those outside of it. Thus, we would not steal from our friends but openly evade taxes as we see the government and others as a cold, faceless body. It does not occur to us that through our actions, we are harming other human beings. The same applies to our view of corporations; despite being made up of real people, we only see them as heartless machines actively conspiring against us.
What if the scale was then expanded to countries? If we do not see a person on the other side of the road as a human being, it is extremely unlikely we would register a foreigner as one. This explains why racism and stereotyping is so common in human societies. Although liberal-minded people would like to believe that we should treat every human being like we treat our mothers, our brain is incapable of it. In fact, it is much more likely we would see those people as acting against our interests by “stealing jobs” and so forth. Thus, racism is a hard-wired behaviour to protect the best interest of our Monkeysphere.
We have established that it is impossible to worry about the seven billion strangers in this world. This brings us to an important point: it is just as impossible to make “them” interested in “you”. It is a cold, hard fact that if you are outside of their Monkeysphere, people will not care about you. Ergo, they treat you badly, put you down, steal from you and downright ignore you. In fact, cognitive dissonance means you are even less likely to care for people outside the Monkeysphere as your brain actively rejects people from getting closer to your Monkeysphere, exceeding the preset limit of 150 people. This is why propaganda always focusses on dehumanising the enemy and why people seeking votes and attention pull at sympathy strings – to try get as close to your Monkeysphere as possible.
Many people will lament how we are not monkeys and the Monkeysphere does not apply to us. We have laws, ethics and “humanity”. However, we cannot escape our primitive psychological behaviours and this is reflected in societies filled with crime, unhappiness and a general disinterest in people not related to yourself. This is why city-dwellers tend to be less friendly than villagers, as there are too many people to fit in one, happy Monkeysphere. In fact, monkeys may have more functional societies than us because they hardly ever exceed their own Monkeyspheres (which may also explain why they rarely have wars). The same can be said of tribes and villages of the past.
Ironically, the development of society has been based around working around the limitations of the Monkeysphere – a theoretically ideal society. By living in larger groups, humans can achieve greater feats such as industries and large-scale economies. Although we suffer the consequences of racism and crime, we have become very effective in survival.
Economics is based on the Monkeysphere too. As we only care about our Monkeysphere, there is no reason for us to be concerned about the needs of others. So when a system such as communism forces us to share our bananas, we become infuriated that we have to give up our bananas to people we do not know. But in capitalism, every individual can pick bananas for just ourselves and those we care about. The system thrives as each Monkeysphere acts dynamically and everyone is happy. This is the concept of the invisible hand that is the foundation of modern economics.
But still, the concept of countries means that we have to share the burden of millions of people we do not care about in the form of taxes and civil duties. This makes us unhappy. So what can we do?
Firstly, realise that you are to others what others are to you. If you find a certain person on television as annoying and irrational, chances are that someone else sees you in that light. You are limited to your Monkeysphere of 150 people and people outside of it are in their own Monkeyspheres.
Secondly, understand that no one is special. There are no heroes or perfect beings. Everyone is a human being and prone to making mistakes and acting “human”. Therefore, we cannot idolise people and be disappointed by their actions. This also means that you cannot judge another person and consider their words and actions as insignificant, as they are just as human as you.
Lastly, never simplify things. The world is not simple. It cannot be generalised as one happy village with everyone living happily in harmony. It is a composite of a massive number of different Monkeyspheres, all concerned with their own well-being and not caring about anything else.
Remember the words that Charles Darwin spoke to his assistant, Jeje Santiago: “Jeje, we are the monkeys”. As much as we would like to think that we are higher-order beings, we are simple creatures of habit and behaviour limited by our Monkeysphere.