Does Social Media Affect Dunbar’s Social Group Size?

With new social media platforms emerging every day, it may seem that people are more connected than ever. However, the depth of these connections and relationships may not reach that of face-to-face interactions. While it can appear as though social media allows an individual to expand their social circle, it could be creating the opposite effect. Psychologist and anthropologist Robin Dunbar would likely argue that social media does not make it possible to enlarge one’s social group size and, on the contrary, shifts social behavior in a way that may cause group size to decrease.

Dunbar, in examining social evolution, proposed the idea that language evolved in order to accommodate larger social group sizes. Primates utilize grooming as a means of bonding, but this can be a rather time-consuming activity. Unlike grooming, language allows an individual to interact with several people at once and exchange information about others, which may render it more efficient in this domain (Dunbar 78-79). Replacing language with grooming could allow group size to expand from a maximum of around 50-55 members to 150 members (Dunbar 75). He states that:

The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us. Putting it another way, it’s the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar (Dunbar 77).

Thus, while language can allow bonding with a wider social circle, the number of members in a group is still limited.

While social media makes it easier to interact with more people, Dunbar would likely argue that an individual is still limited to a social circle of 150 people due to cognitive limits imposed by the brain. He believes that an increase in neocortex size made it possible for animals to manage more complex social relationships and thus increase group size (Dunbar 62). Because he views social group size as tied to brain size, a change would have to occur in modern humans to allow for a group size beyond 150 members. It is unlikely that social media has existed long enough for human brains to adapt and grow in a way that would accommodate larger social groups. Taking this into account, Dunbar would likely argue that social circles are not truly expanding as a result of social media use.

Further, Dunbar differentiates between types of groups and relationships, noting that “sympathy and neocortex groups are limited by the way in which you relate emotionally to people” whereas the number of people whose name you may know, for instance, is limited by memory (Dunbar 77). As a result, he would likely argue that while social media may increase the number of people whose existence you are aware of in the world, it will not increase the number of people you truly relate to on a deeper level. However, the overlap between these types of relationships on social media could be problematic. Social bonding is restricted by time, which Dunbar recognizes in proposing that language replaced grooming as more time-efficient from of social bonding (Dunbar 78). Social media allows people to spend their time and energy interacting with a range of people outside of their social group size, which leaves less time for cultivating relationships with those who make up their tighter circle. In this way, social media could ultimately influence the nature of the relationships between those in the 150 group size and maybe even cause a reduction in overall group size as a result.

However, Dunbar may believe that this reduction in group size was probable anyway. Previously, a large social group could bring forth a survival advantage (e.g., ease in locating food, defending resources from other groups, protection from predators). Because of this advantage, Dunbar highlights that there may have been a “relentless ecological pressure to increase group size” (Dunbar 78). Does this same pressure exist for humans today? In some ways, technological advancements have made it so that humans do not necessarily need to share resources for hunting, foraging, and similar purposes. If there is no longer pressure to accommodate a group size of 150 members, perhaps a reduction in group size can be expected. Social media may simply accelerate this process.

In conclusion, though social media allows for efficient, widespread interactions, Dunbar would likely argue that it does not increase social group size beyond his proposed limit of 150 members. Further, this new form of interaction may come at the expense of these smaller groups, potentially resulting in an overall reduction of group size. Ultimately, it is important to distinguish between different types of relationships in order to determine how social media can affect offline social behavior as a whole.

Word Count: 833

Works Cited

Dunbar, Robin. Grooming, gossip, and the evolution of language. Harvard University Press, 1998.

4 Replies to “Does Social Media Affect Dunbar’s Social Group Size?”

  1. Very interesting paper Marissa, I like how you connected Dunbar’s argument of the purpose of language to something as contemporary as social media.

    I agree with your argument that social circles are not truly expanding through the use of social media. Social media tends to complicate relationships and blur the lines between reality and imagination. I wonder if anyone would argue that social media does create greater closeness in a society? I would argue that it allows people to keep tabs of each other but we remain consistent in the number of people we are close with before social media was created and after.

    I really like the point you add to this argument in the second to last paragraph about the necessity of such large social groups. I agree that maybe we do not need that large of a social group and social media helps us do that by knowing who our friends are and who we keep at arms distance. Social media is troubling in that it makes relationships both foggier and makes clearer.

  2. Hi Marissa,

    Overall great paper. I really appreciated your writing style. Your thesis statement was stated very clearly in the introduction paragraph and made it easy to follow the rest of the paper. Also, you gave goos evidence to support the claim, and each paragraph separated the ideas well, which also helped keep the paper understandable and concise. And finally when I got to the conclusion, it gave a great recap of all of your thoughts. Another thing I really liked about your paper was the topic. When I was brainstorming ideas to write my own Analytical Paper 2, I was trying to think of some way to work social media into it. I couldn’t figure out exactly how to do it and make it successful, so I chose another topic to write about, but you did just that.

  3. Your arguments here make good use of the text . Nonetheless, I take issue with some of the points expressed in the paper. Because it is a central concept the paper I would like to point out that Dunbar’s definition of human social group size (“the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar”) is woefully inadequate. Imagine the scene in every teen-oriented Disney sitcom where the under-age protagonist (and two-three obligatory friends) sneaks into a club or bar only to be caught by a parent, teacher, etc. In these instances, the people they want to see least at the venue are often some of the closest to them socially. I certainly wouldn’t join my grandmother at a bar without at least some embarrassment. Because of this I find Dunbar’s definition inappropriate.

    More to the point though, I do think that social media has the facility to increase social groups size. Keep in mind that social media usage and age are (to some extent) negatively correlated, i.e. the people who use it the most are young. That means their brains are neurologically plastic (at least moreso than adults). This knowledge, in addition to the fact that the human brain’s long-term storage capacity is virtually infinite, makes it hard for me to see why social group size would be limited on any biological basis. However, I appreciate that you point out the difference between number of social relationships and the depth of them. It seems like social media helps us increase them both though. For instance, in the time I have been using Facebook, it has allowed me to connect with individuals I met only briefly at prospective student fly-in programs during the spring of 2014. I recently hosted them in Atlanta as a prospective graduate student at Emory. This social connection would not have been maintained if not for social media. In light of the two points I’ve made here, I’d have to disagree with your argument, though it is well-structured.

    1. Hi Deandre,

      Good points! I would like to point out/clarify that my paper is about how Dunbar himself may view social media based on what we have read–not my own opinons. Nevertheless, I’d be inclined to agree that his definition of human group size needs work and would be interested to examine the potential influence of neuroplasticity in this area futher.

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