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Houston research: Understanding the limit to our professional networks

Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist from England, has been studying and refining his theory on how large human networks can realistically get. Graphic byMiguel Tovar/University of Houston

You go to conferences; you network; you collaborate — all researchers and academics do. But do you need more than 150 contacts? Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter — all of these platforms open us up to the possibility of thousands of acquaintances, though fewer we would refer to as "friends."

Studying the primate brain

Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist from England, has been studying and refining his theory of the "Dunbar number" for 30 years. Dunbar became convinced that there was a ratio between brain sizes and group sizes through his studies of primates. "This ratio was mapped out using neuroimaging and observation of time spent on grooming, an important social behavior of primates. Dunbar concluded that the size, relative to the body, of the neocortex – the part of the brain associated with cognition and language – is linked to the size of a cohesive social group," wrote Christine Ro in a 2019 BBC.com Future article.

After the group reached approximately 150, it collapsed.

Your network

Is it true that humans based on their brain, and especially pre-frontal lobe size, are only able to connect in an intimate manner with around 150 other individuals? Defined as someone you would make plans to have a drink or coffee with if you bumped into them randomly on the street, Dunbar's claim is that it seems to be a consistent theme throughout history. Says the BBC: "This rule of 150 remains true for early hunter-gatherer societies as well as a surprising array of modern groupings: offices, communes, factories, residential campsites, military organizations, 11th Century English villages, even Christmas card lists."

The Dunbar number decreases by a "rule of three" where the next step down is the number 50 – those you consider "friends." Then about 15 in a closely knit circle, and four to six only in our familial or closest friend contacts.

Social media and COVID-19

"What determines these layers in real life, in the face-to-face world… is the frequency at which you see people," says Dunbar. "You're having to make a decision every day about how you invest what time you have available for social interaction, and that's limited." So, social media and COVID would seem to be game-changers for this theory.

Dunbar went on to study the process of "grooming" and light touch with astonishing results, which you can read about in the New Yorker. Basically, if a person has a face-to-face encounter with a friend, they are consequently able to withstand unpleasantness right afterwards (their hands stuck into a bucket of ice, for instance!) at a much higher rate.

"It makes sense that there's a finite number of friends most individuals can have," wrote Ro. "What's less clear is whether that capacity is being expanded, or contracted, by the ever-shifting ways people interact online …'It's extremely hard to cry on a virtual shoulder,' Dunbar deadpans."

And how has COVID changed Dunbar's theory? "While our culture has encouraged us to accumulate friends, both on- and offline, like points, the pandemic has laid bare the distinction between quantity and quality of connections," said a New York Times article. "There are those we've longed to see and those it's been a relief not to see."

The Big Idea

Many try to debunk Dunbar's number, by saying that primate and human brains differ and that the calculations are off. Robin Dunbar defends his theory thirty years after first proposing it in The Conversation.

The number of people you can just recognize according to Dunbar, is about 1,500, so you might want to keep that in mind if you are an extrovert and have an incredibly large network of collaborators – both online and offline.

University of Houston's central research department, the Division of Research, has about 100 members. But, your Linkedin network — check the number and see what it sits at. And if it's 600, ask yourself: do you really need that many contacts?

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

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Building Houston

 
 

XSpace — a huge multi-use commercial condo concept — will be opening its Houston facility in the next few months. Rendering courtesy of XSpace

To some, Houston’s lack of zoning laws is a beautiful thing. The first time Byron Smith visited the city, he remarked on seeing a church, school, office building, and strip club all in startlingly close proximity.

At the time, the Sydney-born entrepreneur, whose previous experience was primarily in the automotive industry, was living in New York. But he fell in love with Space City.

“I was like, ‘We need to be in Texas,” he recalls, referring to expanding his next venture, XSpace, to the Lone Star State.

XSpace is a multi-use commercial condo building that allows entrepreneurs to own a home for their business.

“We’re a cool warehouse space that you own,” Smith explains, calling it “evolutionary space” where a business can grow from the roots up.

Though his family business was commercial real estate, Smith first dipped his toe into working with buildings with last year’s opening of the first XSpace in Austin. The city became “a natural fit” for the first project because Smith identified it as “a little bit more receptive to new things.” But Houston was part of the plan from the very beginning.

Located at 7022 Old Katy Road — close to both an escape room and an Aston-Martin dealership, among other diverse businesses — the Houston XSpace’s 86 units are already between 20- and 30-percent pre-sold, says Smith.

Rendering courtesy of XSpace

Confirmed owners of the spaces include “car guys,” such as a car-wrapping business; media companies that plan to podcast from XSpace; and an interior design company. Smith says that he’s been impressed with Houston’s depth of market.

“We’re trying really hard not to be rich-guy car condo stuff,” explains Smith. “It’s about cool, interesting people who are successful or are going to be successful.”

Though multiple businesses will all operate in XSpace, don’t think of it as a coworking space. In fact, coworking space is just a component included in the package of what owners get when they purchase part of XSpace. That’s inside the Owner’s Lounge, a flexible 4,000-square-foot area.

Each unit has natural light, but also metered electric and hot and cold running water. The whole facility is air-conditioned and well-ventilated and offers 24/7 access. The building is triple-gated for optimum security and includes a backup generator to ensure that owners will be able to work even in the case of another power grid failure.

Smith says that groundbreaking for XSpace will take place in seven weeks. Likely, owners will be able to start moving into the building in the summer of 2024. Until then, Smith says to expect some “sexy announcements” about upcoming partnerships and additional XSpace sites.

Though Smith says that global expansion isn’t yet in the plans for XSpace, “North American domination” is.

“All the cool cities, we’re going to be there,” he says. And it was all inspired by the coolest city of all and its eclectic business landscape.

Rendering courtesy of XSpace

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