Houston voices

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 by Miguel 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

 
 

Optellum and Liongard have hired two new members to their executive teams. Photos courtesy

A couple of Houston tech startups have recently announced new appointments to their C-suites. A med tech company with its national headquarters in Houston has a new leader, and a Houston software has a new exec focused on strategy.

Optellum names new CEO

Jason Pesterfield will lead United States operations for Optellum. Photo courtesy of Optellum

Optellum, a medical software startup based in the United Kingdom and has its United States HQ in Houston, has appointed Jason Pesterfield as CEO to lead growth in the U.S. clinical market. Optellum AI-based software enhances early lung cancer diagnosis and therapy with its medical device software platform, Virtual Nodule Clinic.

Pesterfield was previously the president and CEO of Veran Medical Technologies, a leader in image-guided lung cancer diagnosis. He brings 25 years of leadership experience in the medtech sector. Optellum was founded by Václav Potěšil, Lyndsey Pickup, Timor Kadir, Professor Sir Mike Brady, and Jérôme Declerck.

"It took us almost a year to find the right successor who shares our vision and has the right expertise to take Optellum on to the next stage of growth," says Potěšil in a news release. "I am really excited to work with Jason, to make Optellum's platform available to every clinician in the USA and around the world, and to help them diagnose their lung cancer patients as early as possible. With Jason on board, I can focus on advancing Optellum's vision to transform early lung cancer therapy through partnerships that harness the power of AI software combined with molecular diagnostics, robotics and interventional devices, and drugs."

Liongard announces chief strategy officer

Patrick Schneidau is the chief strategy officer for Liongard. Photo courtesy

​Houston software-as-a-service company, Liongard, has named Patrick Schneidau as chief strategy officer. The company, founded in 2015, was a 2021 InnovationMap Awards finalist and reported that the team was looking to expand by around 70 new hires over the next year.

"Liongard is an incredible Houston growth story," Schneidau tells InnovationMap. "Our founders, Joe Alapat and Vincent Tran, have built a first-class team that allow technology service providers to operate at 10x by providing unprecedented insight and data into the systems deployed in the modern IT stack. In a rapidly growing market, they are quickly becoming 'must have' technology. I'm excited to join to team to accelerate their growth into new markets and with new products."

Schneidau spent over a decade at Houston-based PROS before serving in C-level positions at two other Houston startups — Commtrex and Truss. He's also previously served as talent committee chair for Houston Exponential.

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