The Cognitive Limit of Social Relationships: Breaking Down Dunbar’s Number

The Cognitive Limit of Social Relationships: Breaking Down Dunbar’s Number


In the realm of social interactions, there has always been a debate about the cognitive limit of maintaining stable relationships. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed a theory known as Dunbar’s number, suggesting that individuals can only maintain a finite number of stable social relationships. This number, estimated to be around 150, has led to the belief that the human brain has a cognitive limit when it comes to managing social connections. However, with the advent of technology and digital social networks, the practical implications of Dunbar’s number have become more complex. In this article, we will explore Dunbar’s number, its significance, and how it aligns with the modern era of networking.

Understanding Dunbar’s Number

Dunbar’s number, theorized by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, refers to the maximum number of stable social relationships an individual can maintain simultaneously. The commonly accepted value for Dunbar’s number is 150, which has earned it the nickname “Rule of 150.” This concept emphasizes the value of deep and meaningful connections in our social lives. While the exact number may vary for each person, it provides a framework for understanding the cognitive limit of our social networks.

According to Dr. Alexander Lapa, a psychiatrist from Rehab Guide, Dunbar’s number can be further broken down into different layers of social relationships. These layers include:

  • Loved ones: A small circle of approximately 5 people that includes close family members and intimate partners.
  • Close friends: A group of around 15 individuals with whom we share a deep bond and spend significant time.
  • Friends: A larger circle of approximately 50 people, including acquaintances and colleagues with whom we have regular social interactions.
  • Meaningful contacts: A network of about 150 people who we recognize and have had meaningful interactions with, but may not have close personal relationships.
  • Acquaintances: A broader group of around 500 people that we are familiar with but may not have regular interactions with.
  • People we recognize: A vast network of approximately 1,500 individuals whom we can identify but may not have any personal connection with.

Understanding these different layers helps us allocate our energy and resources effectively, ensuring that we nurture and prioritize relationships that are most important to us.

The Significance of Dunbar’s Number

While discovering that there is a limit to the number of relationships we can maintain may not initially seem positive, there are benefits to understanding and acknowledging this cognitive limit. Realistic expectations play a crucial role in managing our social networks. Many people have a false sense of the size of their networks, either thinking they are well-connected with hundreds of online connections or believing they have few meaningful relationships. By understanding Dunbar’s number and the different layers of our social sphere, we can set realistic expectations and prioritize our relationships more effectively.

Adam Connors, founder of NetWorkWise, explains that people often overestimate or underestimate the size of their networks. Some may believe that the hundreds of connections they have on platforms like Facebook or LinkedIn represent their network, while others may feel they have very few connections at all. In reality, the size of our network lies somewhere in between, especially when we consider the different layers and levels of influence within our social circles.

Relationship Prioritization: Balancing Quantity and Quality

Prioritizing relationships may sound challenging and even unsavory, but it is a natural way to navigate our social networks efficiently. Dr. Ketan Parmar, a psychiatrist and mental health expert, explains that while it is possible to have more than 150 contacts, not all of them will be meaningful or close relationships. To surpass Dunbar’s number, one must invest more time and effort into maintaining and strengthening bonds with each person, which may not be feasible or desirable for everyone.

However, there are benefits to having an extensive network as well. In a professional environment, relationships are often defined by specific goals or shared interests rather than deep emotional connections. These professional relationships can extend beyond Dunbar’s number because they do not require the same cognitive load as personal connections. Building a diverse network that includes both personal and professional connections allows us to tap into various resources, opportunities, and knowledge.

Navigating the Modern Era of Networking

With the rise of social media and digital platforms, maintaining and expanding our networks has become more accessible than ever. Social media platforms like LinkedIn offer a unique opportunity to network with professionals from various industries. However, effective networking on social media requires a different approach compared to traditional face-to-face interactions. Let’s explore some strategies for networking on social media and maintaining your connections.

How to Network on Social Media

Different social media platforms cater to different types of content, and LinkedIn, in particular, is well-suited for professional networking. Here are some tips for effective networking on social media, with a focus on LinkedIn:

  • Post content: Posting content on social media platforms is a foundational step in building your network. By sharing valuable insights, experiences, or asking thought-provoking questions, you can establish yourself as an expert in your field and attract like-minded professionals. Consider posting content that fosters engagement and invites meaningful discussions.
  • Offer real value and connection: Instead of treating social media as a platform to broadcast your message, focus on providing value to your connections. Engage with their posts, leave thoughtful comments, and share relevant articles or resources. By showing genuine interest and offering help, you can build meaningful connections.
  • Post in private and public: While public posts on social media platforms reach a broader audience, engaging in private groups or direct messaging can create a more intimate and focused environment for networking. Participating actively in private groups allows you to connect with like-minded professionals and establish yourself as a valuable member of a specific community.
  • Avoid generic communication: Generic emails, comments, or connection requests often go unnoticed or fail to make a lasting impression. Personalize your interactions by mentioning specific details or common interests you share with the person you are reaching out to. Remember, networking is about building genuine relationships, not simply accumulating contacts.
  • Look for diverse connections: While it may be tempting to connect only with individuals who can directly benefit your career or business, broadening your network to include diverse connections can lead to unexpected opportunities. Seek connections based on shared interests, hobbies, or personal values. A diverse network brings fresh perspectives and opens doors to new possibilities.
  • Be consistent and persistent: Building a network takes time and effort. Consistency is key to maintaining and expanding your connections. Set aside dedicated time each week to engage with your network, respond to messages and comments, and reach out to new connections. Persistence pays off in networking, as you never know when a casual conversation can turn into a valuable professional opportunity.

How to Maintain Your Network

Building a network is just the first step; maintaining and nurturing your connections is equally important. Here are some strategies to help you effectively manage your network:

  • Create a schedule: Consistency is crucial in maintaining your network. Set aside specific time each week to interact with your connections, respond to messages, and engage with their content. By consistently showing up and staying active, you can foster stronger relationships and avoid the stress of reaching out to hundreds of people all at once.
  • Explore different channels: While LinkedIn is a popular platform for professional networking, consider exploring other channels that align with your goals and target audience. Slack, Facebook groups, and industry-specific forums can provide unique networking opportunities. Identify the platforms that resonate with your niche and participate actively to expand your network.
  • Segment your network: Instead of viewing your network as a single entity, consider segmenting it into different groups based on the level of connection or relevance. Categorize your connections into inner circle, professional acquaintances, and casual contacts. This segmentation allows you to allocate your time and resources more efficiently, focusing on nurturing relationships that are most important to you.
  • Get organized: To effectively manage your network, consider using tools like client relationship management (CRM) software or productivity tools like Notion or Trello. These tools can help you track your goals, important contacts, and progress in building relationships. Having a systematic approach to networking ensures that you stay organized and make the most of your efforts.
  • Meet in groups: While most networking takes place on a one-on-one basis, there is value in organizing group meetings or events. Connecting professionals who share common interests or goals can lead to collaborations, introductions, and opportunities. By facilitating connections between individuals, you position yourself as a valuable and influential member of your network.
  • Manage your time: With the constant influx of emails, messages, and notifications, it’s vital to set boundaries and manage your time effectively. Establish work-free zones and dedicate specific hours each day to focus on building and maintaining relationships. By prioritizing your connections and setting aside time for meaningful interactions, you can create a healthy balance between work and networking.


While Dunbar’s number suggests that there is a cognitive limit to the number of stable social relationships we can maintain, it doesn’t mean we are confined to a specific number of connections. By understanding the layers of our network and setting realistic expectations, we can effectively manage our relationships and prioritize our efforts. Leveraging social media platforms like LinkedIn allows us to expand our networks and tap into diverse opportunities. By posting valuable content, offering genuine connections, and engaging consistently, we can build and maintain a robust network of professional relationships. Remember, networking is not just about accumulating contacts, but about fostering meaningful connections that can enrich both our personal and professional lives.

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