Friday, March 5, 2010

The Power of 150

Have a little seat and ponder this:

(Favourite setting this week, from Vogue Living Australia March 2010)

Or perhaps you would prefer a pink tufted chair. I know I would: 

Did you know that the human brain developed over time to manage a particular specific number of social connections?  This is known as our social channel capacity and is one of the reasons our brain is so large.  Anthropologists argue that the larger the social grouping, the larger the brain. 

That number is 150.

Any more, it becomes difficult.   The connections become thinner, and less solid.  The time we have to spend on each relationship becomes more limited. 

Any less, and we probably have more time to devote to these spiderwebs of friendship.

Anyone who has read Malcolm Gladwell's 'The Tipping Point' will be familiar with this concept.   He provides oodles of evidence in support, including:

  • a religious group, the Hutterites, who split into smaller groups each time their grouping approaches 150.
  • Gore Corporation, a madly successful US business, which has found its success in part through keeping its corporate groups, and plant personnel, to less than 150 people. 

And of course we can all think of our own examples of the power of 150. 

Perhaps this is why many weddings and engagement parties have guests which number between 100 and 200.  It is why smaller schools are often better for children than very large ones.   This may also be why those who live in small country towns, bereft of the infrastructure and services of a big city, are often so happy, content and well connected.  They know all the people they need to know.

Graham Greene also had views on this topic.   He said that every single person only has the ability to really know a certain number of people, streets and the insides of houses.  Any more and we risk becoming overwhelmed.  GG didn't need some anthropologist to tell him what he knew in his bones to be true. 

So I wonder what all this means in 2010, in an era of Facebook friends in the 100s, subscribers and readers of blogs in the 1000s and Twitterers with millions of followers.  Is it all too overwhelming?  Can you ever truly know all these people?  Or are these just loose social connections - no less satisfactory, but of course different to the ones you have over coffee or a glass of wine?    Some people are marvellously well equipped to have multitudes of social connections. They enjoy and thrive on the time required to sustain them.  Others really are better off in a small social circle.     And yet isn't it strange that you can still feel an innate connection with people just through a sharing of common interests, images or even a joke. 

Maybe our brains will have to grow to cope with it.   Just like one of my other theories which is that our fingers will eventually develop froglike pads on the end to cope with all the typing we do....


Laura said...

I love this concept, and I was telling everyone I met about the Gore Corporation for quite some time after I finished that book! I think what this means is that if one has 1,000 Facebook friends, one might have to face the fact that they are not all, in fact, one's friends.

Ange said...

I guess this means I shall have to limit my 40th birthday party to 150 which is a shame as the entire house wlll only fit 80 at a tight squeeze. Mind you - there are 50 hectares of fields all around and my house is hidden from the road so if I do invite everyone I know off FB, the blog, twitter, my kids' school, my husband's work friends, family relatives 10 times removed - I should still be able to find a corner by the lake where I can converse with a couple of really close friends over a bottle of bubbly and still be blissfully happy.
Seriously - what a great post. And I'm with GG. After 9 1/2 years in Paris with people above me, below me and beside me 24/7 - it was a no brainer the environment I wanted to move to. I can now spend 3 entire days and not see anyone else if I don't wish to. After that someone is likely to drop by to make sure I am still breathing. Brings an enormous sense of freedom.

Julie@beingRUBY said...

Fabulous Post Jane
I know I am not geared to 1000's of people.. well not in my personal life anyway... being around so many ppl at work has me hibernating at home whenever I can.. I never used to be .. but am now happy to spend many hours by myself... winding down and having space to develop other interests... As I get older I'm fairly content with my few close personal friends.

This is a fascinating concept really... as blogging opens the door socially to so many more acquaintances on a regular basis.. It's hard to keep up with it all....

On a lighter note.. I was just reading that magazine before I popped over here.. and was thinking how much I liked that article on Hamish Bowles apartment.. not sure I could live there but love to look at it.. Have a great weekend Jane xx Julie

Amanda (Small Acorns) said...

Great post Jane. Really has me thinking about the power of 150. I also know I'm not equipped to deal with 1000's but I do still love my blogging connections with friends who I don't really know, but like to think I know a little.

Kristine said...

As George Costanza said, "I only have an opening for one new friend a year."

Regarding your last point, apparently young people's thumb muscles are already noticeably more defined from all the texting that goes on.

count it all joy said...

Goodness, Jane...this is such an interesting observation. I don't have a Facebook account, possibly for that reason. It seems too much like intrusion into private life and time. Do I really want everyone I've ever met to know the minutiae of my life? Why would they be the least bit interested?

I wonder if in a few years time there will, in fact, be a huge pendulum swing in the other direction and we'll all start guarding our privacy with greater respect and turn off Facebook, Twitter etc.

I have to say though, I really enjoy blogging. I haven't got a particularly "huge" blog, but this has afforded me the opportunity to connect with people who drop by. I love that! This has been an unexpected blessing.

Case in point...I'm looking forward to dropping by here's lovely here. Meredy xo.

FTRB said...

This is fascinating and I totally believe it. I think all the online connections we make can be as meaningful as real life ones in some cases but I think those are the exception. I'd love to know how they set on that specific number . . .

Dumbwit Tellher said...

Jane such pertinent food for thought in our social networking times. I do believe this. As bloggers we all want to see our numbers of 'followers' grow and grow, but what come with that is the anxiety of not being able to keep up with the comments, the posts, the connections, doesn't it? I feel horrible when I don't respond to comments left & even worse for not keeping up with my favorite bloggers. I feel like I've abandoned them. I struggle (as I think most of us do) with those issues on a daily basis. Would love to know how others deal with it all. Fascinating post, loved it Jane. Now go have a glorious weekend with your family xxoo

Jacqueline @ HOME said...

Dear Jane,
I am totally confused by all this.
My, for want of a better phrase, 'real friend's'', here at home, I could probably count on one hand. Then, there is a network of 'friends' that are on the perifery. Not as close...aquaintances.
Then, there are my blogging friends. This is a new phenomenen. ... and a very strange one. I have about 450 followers but, usually get about 60 comments, on average. About 30/40 of these ae regular commenters ( including you, Jane. You always comment, even when my poata are very shallow !! You are so loyal and, a very good blogging friend !!)..... but, what does this mean ? For some reason, I class regular commenters as my friends....even though I have never met them. For some reason, I have connected with these people through words. Nothing more, nothing less and, I don't really understand it. Do you, Jane ? Something, through the wavelengths of blogging, I have related to about 30 or 40 people. I have never met them or talked to them. Just commented on their poats and they have commented on mine. That's it. ...and I have begun to like these people. like their views on things, their humour, their standards. Why is that ? I have to leave it there as, I don't understand it myself. I can meet many people in 'real life' but, don't connect with them. Any ideas as to why this is ?: XXXX

Mise said...

I agree with Jacqueline here on the matter of the regular commentators - they're my friends, even though I've never met them, and they add a lovely element to the ebb and flow of my general social interaction, much more so than the Facebook friends I worked with briefly 10 years ago but whose friend requests I accept out of politeness, even though they already have 400 friends and are clearly just starting some sort of a pointless army of quasi-friends. But I think 150 friends would be too many for me - I only invited 40 people to my wedding.

Millie said...

I look back at my 54 years & think about the thousands of people who I've been fortunate to meet. How much they've added to my life in many different ways. But those who really make the biggest impact are those, when we meet up again after much time apart, connect with me on a way that dissolves that time completely. So I guess there are acquaintances & ACQUAINTANCES!
Millie ^_^

myletterstoemily said...

not sure my unscientific mind can
quantify 150. but my gut says that
it rings true.

i know that as i met over 150 people
in blog world, i couldn't keep track
of them. after thinning out the ranks,
i had a better handle and ease with

my husband and i had 495 in our
graduating class. i'm sure i didn't
know more than 150.

anyway, i love a post like this that
make me THINK. i also love graham


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