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 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

 
 

Mayor Sylvester Turner and other local leaders joined the stage for the Ten Across summit in Houston this week. Photo by Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Houston has an integral role to play in the energy transition, and that role was thoroughly discussed at a recent conference taking place in the Bayou City.

This week, Houston hosted the 10X Summit: The Future Is Here, an event by Ten Across — an organization that focuses on social, economic, and climate change issues across the region around Interstate 10 from Los Angeles to Jacksonville. The three-day conference featured guest speakers who spoke to resiliency, water, the future of energy, and more.

Among these speakers included a handful of Houston researchers, political figures, and innovators — and much of their conversations overlapped related topics and themes, from Hurricane Harvey's legacy and impact on the business community to the role the city will play in the energy transition.

When it comes to the energy transition, here are the key messages Houston leaders shared with 10X attendees.

The energy transition can't happen without Houston

The topic of the energy transition came up right out of the gate for the summit. At the welcome reception on Tuesday, Bobby Tudor, CEO of Artemis Energy Partners and founder and former CEO of Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co., spoke to the evolution of the industry and how Houston is a major factor in the energy transition's success.

“I don’t think (the energy transition) is going to happen without (Houston)," Tudor says at the fireside chat with Wellington Reiter, executive director of Ten Across. "There's a notion that the transition is inevitable. It’s inevitable — only if our technology continues to advance and improve, only if new assets get deployed, only if capital supports it, and only if the people who know and understand the energy systems are leaning in to make it happen.”

For Tudor, who served as chair of the Greater Houston Partnership in 2020 and made it his mission to communicate the importance of industry evolution during his tenure, Houston businesses motivated by opportunities in business should be looking at the energy transition.

“We’re very good in Houston that, when we see a dollar bill lying on the ground, we bend over and pick it up. Right now, there’s fantastic opportunity in the energy transition space," he says. "We have both a responsibility and an opportunity to be the leaders in the global energy transition.”

Mayor Sylvester Turner in his chat with Reiter on Thursday addressed how some might think that Houston — a headquarters for some of the biggest oil and gas giants — might not be the right city to lead a cleaner energy system, but Turner argued that's exactly why it has to happen here.

“We are the energy capital of the world," he says. "The reality is we have some of the largest greenhouse gas emitters principally located right here in Houston. To the extent of leading an energy transition, the impact is not just locally. The impact is globally.”

Barbara Burger, former president of Chevron Technology Ventures and an energy tech startup mentor and investor, explained how integral the relationship between the energy industry and Houston is.

“As the energy system evolves, so does Houston," she says. “I think it’s our opportunity to lose."

The role of corporate incumbents 

Burger's discussion, which took place on Wednesday, spoke to the role of incumbents — corporations that have been operating in the energy industry for decades — in the transition. She explained how the process can't move forward without these parties.

“The incumbents need to be a part of the energy transition. There are parts of our society that don’t want them to be, and I find that unfortunate," she says. "For one, we’re not going to decarbonize the energy system unless they are a part of it. Two, there are a lot of skills and capabilities and assets in the incumbents to do that.

"What I don’t think the incumbents will do is they won’t lead it," she continues. "Many will be leaders in the new energy system, but they won’t be the ones first up the hill.”

Burger compares the energy and the automotive industries. Tesla acted as a disruptor to major auto companies, and then they followed suit. The disruptors and catalysts the energy industry will be a combination of startups, investors, governments, universities, and employee bases.

“We’re not going to throw away the current energy system," she says. "We’re going to evolve it and repurpose it.”

Houston has the ingredients

Tudor addressed the existing infrastructure — from physical pipes to expertise and workforce — that Houston has, which makes for an ideal location for innovation and progress in the transition.

“For a lot of reasons, it’s very clear that unless Houston leans in, we’re not going to find the solutions we need to transition our energy systems to much lower CO2 emissions," he says.

The GHP established the Houston Energy Transition Initiative in 2021 to concentrate Houston efforts within the future of energy. Tudor says this initiative is focused on what can be done now in town — attracting clean energy startups, developing a hydrogen hub, building facilities for green hydrogen production — to lead to a better future.

“We want to look up 20 years from now and find Houston is still — if not more than ever — the energy capital of the world," he says. "We believe that energy systems globally in 20 years will look quite different from how they look today. And that means Houston will look very different from how it looks today."

Burger emphasized some of the challenges — as well as opportunities — the city has considering its long history within the sector.

“Houston has benefitted from a vibrant, strong U.S. energy industry,” she says. “Keeping strong companies and keeping Houston attractive for the energy business is critical.”

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