According to Dr. Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, I am fast approaching the age when the number of close relationships I’m likely to maintain is about to plummet.
Professor Dunbar is best known for the number 150. This number rose to fame after the anthropologist published a paper in 1993 that sought to prove that, on average, we can practically maintain around 150 meaningful relationships. Since then, 150 has become known as Dunbar’s number.
For those who struggle to stay connected to more than a handful of people, 150 sounds like a lot. But for others who interact with substantially higher numbers of contacts through social media, the researcher’s numbers seem wildly understated. Either way, I’ve never lived in a home that accommodated this many people.
Dr. Dunbar’s theory is based on the size and importance of our neocortex, the part of the brain responsible for conscious thought. His research suggests that our social networks are limited by our capacity to hold more persons in our conscious minds. By the way, the number 1,500 is how many people you can recognize, according to his study.
Closer to home, according to the theory, we can maintain relationships with around 50 total friends. Add the qualifier “good,” and the number drops to 15. Still, our inner circles are limited to around five people who may also appear on our cell phone’s favorites list.
Professor Dunbar’s research rose again to prominence during the height of COVID as psychologists responded to an increasing caseload of clients experiencing increased stress due to isolation. Also, the pandemic winding down allows us to rethink navigating our social and professional circles.
Suppose you have a long list of Facebook friends. In that case, you may agree with a more recent study uncovered by New York Times journalist Jenny Gross that questions Dunbar’s number. She discovered a group of Swedish researchers who argue that the size of our neocortex is not the limiting factor. According to their study, we can maintain a long list of relationships if we’re willing to put in the effort.
When asked about the research that questions his number, Professor Dunbar challenged whether “relationship” in this recent research had the same meaning. Dunbar argues that your relationship is only meaningful if you know them well enough to greet them in an airport lounge without feeling awkward.
There is no doubt that the use of social media to stay connected increased significantly during the pandemic. But on the subject of social media taking us beyond our biological limitations, Dunbar notes that “Having a conversation isn’t like a lighthouse; it is not just blinking away out there, and maybe someone is listening, and maybe somebody is not.”
Nevertheless, building and maintaining relationships take time and effort. And this holds true for our relationship with God. And for God to be a part of our inner circle means putting as much time and effort into our relationship with God as those closest to us.
This connection between belief and effort is logical. We can understand it, and we can do something about it. Prayer, reading scripture, fasting, meditation, journaling, worship, music, art, observing the natural world, and conversations with others all contribute to a closer relationship with God.
Paul is credited, or blamed, for instructing us to “pray without ceasing.” And while this sounds like Paul had no other friends taking up his time, connecting with God happens when we’re not consciously praying or doing any of the things on the earlier list. At least not in the traditional sense.
You are like light for the whole world… In the same way your light must shine before people.
For example, Isaiah offers a glimpse into the heart of God. We’re told that to get closer to God we should share our food with the hungry and give clothes to those who need them (Isaiah 58:7). When we do, we connect with God.
How do I know this?
Jesus tells us that whenever we offer water to someone thirsty, food to someone hungry, and clothing to someone in need of clothing, it’s Him that we’re really connecting to (Matthew 25:40). That’s the miracle of our friendship with Christ. God’s Spirit is always as close as our own breath.
I pray that you’ll choose to work on keeping Jesus Christ in your inner circle. He should be first on your favorite list. I’m confident that if you do this, the rest of your inner circle will be glad you do. When doing so, we become like a light on a hill quickly noticed (Matthew 5:15).
And it is through our belief that our relationship with God grows. We all struggle with doubt for a multitude of reasons. It’s similar to the highs and lows in our closest relationships. One difference, however, is that God keeps all of His promises and loves us through it all.
Barnabas Piper writes, “Alone we are blind. The Spirit gives sight. Alone we are foolish. The Spirit gives wisdom. Alone we are dead. The Spirit gives life.”
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Content for this series is based in part on:
Barnabas Piper. Help My Unbelief: Why doubt is not the enemy of faith © Barnabas Piper, 2020. Charlotte : The Good Book Company.
“Dunbar’s number: Why we can only maintain 150 relationships.” © BBC.com, 2023. Retrieved from: link.
Jenny Gross. “Can You Have More Than 150 Friends?.” © New York Times, May 11, 2021. Retrieved from: link