Dunbar's number is one of the critical elements for humans and societies. Increasing Dunbar's number has been proposed in this question:

What would be the traits of a humanoid being who would live more comfortably in modern society?

How would one actually increase that number, so that larger clans/groups could work together with less government?

This seems to be tied in with biology, of course, since humans have been around for a few million years, but we've only had things like agriculture (and large groups of people) for a fraction of that time.

What would we change in our brains? If we had means (technical or otherwise) of direct brain-to-brain connectivity, would our empathy become greater as we understood other points of view more quickly, without making changes to our genetic makeup?

A technical solution might be interesting; instead of going to the library to read a book on social situation X, one might 'plug in' and truly understand the conditions of situation X (from multiple angles). This is somewhat like ST:TNG Inner Light episode. There, technical means were used.

Some sort of psychedelic drug?

  • $\begingroup$ more effective human resources management system would be the way to improve the efficiency of collective work. Software and such, maybe based on neural network principle etc. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Dec 18, 2017 at 7:12
  • $\begingroup$ How quickly is quickly? $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Dec 18, 2017 at 9:07

3 Answers 3


Dunbar's number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. (Wiki)

This first aspect of Dunbar's Number specifically identifies a "stable social relationship" as one where every person within the group knows everybody else and how they're related. This can't be done with social media which is intrinsically anonymous in nature.

The important aspect to understand here is that Dunbar's Number has more to do with the quality of the relationship than it does the quantity of relationships. You will meet thousands of people in your lifetime — but how many of them do you actually remember?

Dunbar explained it informally as "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."

This second aspect of Dunbar's Number is incredibly important. It's not just you who's unembarrased meeting someone you know at a bar — they can't be embarrassed, either. That means the relationship is deeper and more complex than can be achieved today through electronic association.

At my largest employer I probably knew by name well over 100 people. I knew about the family life of probably 50 (had met their spouses & children, had met them outside of work). But, at best, only 10 fall into the catagory Dunbar suggests.

Frankly, the only way to do this is to increase memory, both width and depth.

Width: This is the "multi-tasking" component of memory. It relates the the number of active items you can process at one time. With greater "width" you have the ability to interact with a larger number of people at the moment. This would greatly improve your ability to establish Dunbar-quality relationships.

Depth: This is long-term memory. It allows you to reconnect with people you haven't seen for a while. It gives you the ability to retain a greater number of Dunbar relationships. How many people do I remember pre-age-10 that I could claim as Dunbar-quality relationships? Frankly... 3.

To improve my Dunbar Number I would need to remember people, who they are, what their likes & dislikes are, their basic job history, the members of their family... ("John, hi! how's Karen? Is little Larry still interested in being a fireman? Are you still a CPA for Equifax?") — and they need to remember the same about me.

A better human memory means a higher Dunbar Number — whether that translates into needing less government is a highly debatable issue. A higher Dunbar Number won't make people less greedy, less selfish, or less arrogant.

BTW, I'm not convinced that telepathic or empathic abilities would automatically improve human relationships. As I mentioned: greed, selfishness, arrogance, lust and a host of other "less desirable" qualities are part of human nature. Honestly, we'd just find different ways to lie, to cheat, to circumvent rules, etc. In fact, telepathic and empathic abilities might be a curse as people would quickly learn to better hide their feelings and intentions than they do now, making relationships on average even more shallow. That's just my two bits on the matter.


I think this is already being done; it's called Social Media.

The reality is that maintaining social relationships take a lot more than just intelligence; in the past, these relationships were also limited by the fact that people needed physical proximity in order to relate to each other. The phone expanded our ability to maintain friendships and the like over long distances, but it's tools like Facebook that seems to be truly successful at doing that. I think that's for 2 reasons.

Firstly, photos and videos. That visualisation means people feel like they are truly part of the action. Secondly, social media limits the experience and puts it into an 'interrupt driven' mode; what that means is that you don't get the sense of touch or smell through facebook but we don't seem to really need that to be 'social', or at least one form of it. Also, the other person can post when they have the time, and you read when you have time. Even if these times are disjointed, it doesn't feel like that to the person reading the post.

If we take the limited form of socialisation that sites like Facebook allows as being a new form of social interaction, then for Millennials at least, their Dunbar Number has already risen. For those of us from older generations, we're less likely to lose contact with someone who moves away and therefore our Dunbar Number is also increasing through better retention of existing relationships.

To address comments...
Yes, there are some studies that appear to show that the Dunbar Number is unchanged by sites like Facebook, but (in my opinion) they fail to recognise a fundamental fact about the way the human mind has been changing since the invention of the Gutenberg printing press; we are re-wiring ourselves to focus less on memory and more on processing and analytical capability.

This is even more so since the dawn of the internet. Why remember heaps of facts when you can just look them up via Google or Wikipedia? This is especially so in a world where those 'facts' are changing so fast as our understanding of science and other subjects is growing so quickly, rendering old facts obsolete faster than we can learn them.

We no longer ask our children in schools to name the capital cities of a hundred nations. We ask them questions like 'why are many capital cities NOT the economic centre of their nation?'

We're testing their ability to analyse and 'fact-check', not remember.

When we consider this trend, I'd argue that if you take the classical model of the Dunbar Number, Facebook et al are actually decreasing our Dunbar numbers because people no longer find it necessary to 'remember' everything about their friends; they have a handy reference available to them at all times. Further, I'd argue that this is the reason most Millennials prefer to talk to friends on Facebook rather than organise large social gatherings; they have access to the information they need to interact with each other in the medium in which they choose to interact.

Whether we like it or not, we're using our computers and smart phones as artificial memory. We go to them whenever we need to know something, rather than remember it directly. That frees us up to do the real value added work of analysing the information we retrieve from these devices.

In that sense, (with respect to @JBH's Answer which is very good) we ARE increasing our width and depth of memory as a species through artificial means. We're effectively reserving our biological memory as a 'cache' which we fill from our artificial memory, retrieving the relevant information at will, as needed.

In that sense, research that involves surveys to determine Dunbar Numbers misses (in my opinion of course) the one inalienable fact about the way we process information today, including social information; the average person out there CAN'T remember enough to increase their natural Dunbar Number, but that's not what counts anymore. In the world of social media, people now have selective Dunbar Numbers, meaning that they can selectively remember what they need to about a much larger cohort of individuals on an 'as needed' basis, thanks to what amounts to artificial memory.

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    $\begingroup$ there is no evidence social media increases dunbar's number, if anything it is evidence for it being the same, journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/… $\endgroup$
    – John
    Dec 17, 2017 at 13:50
  • $\begingroup$ @John; Twitter (while called social media) is more of a press release forum; the journalistic equivalent of desktop publishing. Sites like Facebook, Instagram et al are a more realistic depiction of the Dunbar number, and IMHO maintaining a 'stable social relationship' is about information exchange; this tends to happen in Facebook but not on twitter. Facebook as a result can be used as a 'daily summary' of sorts that allows you to keep up to date with people far more effectively than Twitter would allow. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B II
    Dec 17, 2017 at 22:07
  • $\begingroup$ Studies using facebook show similar results. rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/3/1/150292 $\endgroup$
    – John
    Dec 18, 2017 at 0:20
  • $\begingroup$ Hmmm. Will address in an edit. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B II
    Dec 18, 2017 at 0:35
  • $\begingroup$ Sounds like a lot of conjecture with nothing to back it up. You also seem to be confusing the flynn effect and information accessibility with dunbar's number which are distinct things. There is a large emotional facet to dunbar's number its not about whether you can look up information on a thousand people. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Dec 18, 2017 at 2:20

One way to achieve that would be to extend healty lifespan to 1000 years. You definitively meet more people over 10 centuries.

Another way would be to boost our brainpower, if we could process information 100 times faster, communicate more efficiently, remember more things we would be able to interface with more people. As was pointed out, Social Networking is kind of helping us achieving that (not sure about the efficiency part though...)


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