Today’s fortune made me think about the deep meaning of relationships in my life (pun intended). We live in an age that allows us to connect with people far and wide. Technologies such as the telephone and email gave us the ability to communicate with family, friends, and co-workers instantly and over great distances. When we add social media to the mix, we can accumulate a significant number of people with which to connect. Unfortunately, some of those connections won’t be as strong as others.
According to British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, people can comfortably maintain only 150 ± 50 stable relationships. These are people that we know well and how they relate to every other person we know. We are capable of having a small number of best friends, a few more that are close friends, and even more that are acquaintances, but our reach and connections strain beyond 150 in our tribe. Anyone beyond this circle of friends is simply a person that we don’t actively think about in a personal way. This suggestive cognitive limit is called our “Monkeysphere,” a term coined by David Wong, editor of Cracked.
I don’t know if Dunbar could predict what our social world would be like when he proposed this number in 1990. Social media was just starting to suck us into its web in 1997 with the creation of Six Degrees. Although we could chat before, this was the first time we could upload a profile and network. Now we have a vast ocean of social sites.
In order to navigate the many social connections we have, both actual and virtual, I like to think of my tribe as more of a shoal of fish. We swim along in our “Sea Monkeyspheres” trying to stay alive and sane. The nice part about an ocean is we can float in and out of different columns and environments and interact with other spheres. I still have my close-knit group, but I can connect with others in a cove or coral reef and enjoy a little camaraderie.
The people I connect with beyond my Sea Monkeysphere still receive my polite demeanor, but I won’t have as strong a connection with them. A sphere larger than 150 (approximately) can become stressful and difficult to maintain. It’s hard to keep a cohesive group and not attract predators. Even in nature, sharks, dolphins, and whales herd schooling fish into frantic bait balls that are easy prey.
Some of our predators are strained relationships, distrust, and intimidation. A strategy for preventing this is by allowing our outer circle of friends a bit a freedom to shift with other spheres. Our acquaintances ebb and flow in our lives, and we can choose to tighten or loosen our bonds with them and not damage the relationship. This civility allows us to pull in other sea monkeys and build closer relations with them.
It all comes down to where people fall on our empathy/apathy scale and how we adjust it. I believe these two opposing feelings are on a spectrum. Like varying shades of gray, the degree to which one feels the feelings of another person determines the placement of one’s dot on the scale. We can place our BFFs closer to the empathy end, and people we don’t know exist closer to the apathy end.
Although there are heartless people in the world, I believe most of us place the people outside our spheres in a neutral position. We want to care about others, but we also care about our close friends and especially ourselves most. Why? Because we are inherently selfish for survival reasons. We can still be empathetic towards others, just not as much as to those in our Sea Monkeysphere.
Don’t get swept out to sea by trying to maintain a vast sphere of social connections, just keep it healthy and fluid. Schooling with our Sea Monkeysphere keeps us grounded and safe but also gives us a chance to spread our reach with a shifting tide of friends throughout our lives.