Sorry, Facebook friends: Our brains can't keep up

A concept called Dunbar's Number contends that people can only manage relationships with 150 friends at a time. But does that also apply to social networks?

Don Reisinger
Former CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger

Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Oxford University, developed a theory in the 1990s dubbed Dunbar's Number. The theory contends that the human brain is only capable of managing relationships--staying in contact at least once per year and knowing how friends relate to others--with about 150 people.

Until recently, it was believed that that only pertained to "offline" relationships.

Dunbar has now decided to shift focus to see whether Facebook has changed the number.

It hasn't.

"The interesting thing is that you can have 1,500 friends, but when you actually look at traffic on sites, you see people maintain the same inner circle of around 150 people that we observe in the real world," Dunbar told the London-based Sunday Times. "People obviously like the kudos of having hundreds of friends but the reality is that they're unlikely to be bigger than anyone else's."

For now, Dunbar's study is in its preliminary stages, meaning more testing needs to be done. Regardless, Dunbar doesn't believe that anything will change: no matter how many thousands of friends we might have on Facebook, we can't manage relationships with more than 150 of them.

Dunbar's study will be released later this year.