EP. 53: THE POWER OF FRIENDS: ROBIN DUNBAR ON OUR MOST IMPORTANT NUMBER

Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born — Anais Nin

If you had asked me before talking to Robin Dunbar – the eminent anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist famous for his Dunbar’s Number, what numerical value is most important for your health, I think my reflexive answer would have been either age or some blood pressure/blood sugar number. 

As extremely important as these biomarkers certainly are, the number of close friends you have can actually decrease your risk of health issues like heart attack, stroke, and diabetes. 

Relationship research backs up what seems self-evident; those with strong friendships are far more resilient in many settings, whether it be a severe illness, a difficult work situation, or dealing with loss of some kind. 

Robin Dunbar is an Emeritus Professor of Evolutionary Psychology and head of the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford. Robin is also the author of over 22 books on human behavior, including his most recent Friends — Understanding the Power of Our Most Important Relationships.

Robin’s research involves the behavioral and cognitive systems that underpin social bonding in humans. Understanding these systems offers insights into how humans created large-scale societies – and the challenges a company may have when scaling beyond a certain size.

“Dunbar’s number” is the discovery that a cognitive limit exists on human groups (or friendships) of about 150. Generally, we can only maintain stable relationships within a limited number in which each individual knows who the other is and how that person relates to each other. 

On the show, Robin breaks down the number into concentric circles of smaller groups that make up our closest friends, explaining how they got there – and maybe more importantly, how we can maintain and grow them.

We discuss these topics…

  • The importance of friends and the huge effect they have on our health
  • A summary of his famous number – and its implications for friendships
  • How friendships change across a lifespan
  • How best friends are created
  • How and why friendships end
  • The pandemics impact on friendships, a bit about proximity
  • The effect of the internet, Zoom, and Social Media
  • Differences in friendship between the online and real-world
  • The impact of individual differences in introversion and extraversion
  • Friendships between men and women, the “When Harry Met Sally” question

Robin’s research is very interesting, and he was a lot of fun to talk with. I think you’ll enjoy it.

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One Response

  1. Thanks Larry, such an interesting topic and guest. Robin is much more than just a number guy. My mind is scurrying off is a multitude of directions thinking about the way relationships have affected me over the decades.

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