Learnings Mental Models

The Dunbar Number: Understanding the Limits of Social Connections


In the realm of decision-making, the Dunbar Number provides a compelling mental model. Coined by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, it suggests that humans have a cognitive limit to maintain stable social relationships, estimated to be around 150 individuals. This concept is rooted in human psychology and has significant implications for our daily lives, influencing personal decisions, business dynamics, and public policy-making processes.

Defining the Dunbar Number and Its Relevance in Decision-Making

The Dunbar Number refers to the theoretical limit on the number of meaningful social connections an individual can maintain. It suggests that due to cognitive constraints, we have a natural limit to the number of close relationships we can cultivate and sustain. This mental model is relevant in decision-making as it impacts our ability to navigate social networks, allocate resources, and make choices that align with our best interests. Understanding the Dunbar Number helps us recognize the limitations of our social capacity and make more informed decisions based on realistic expectations.

Examples of the Dunbar Number in Various Contexts

  1. Personal Life Decisions: Consider an individual who decides to organize a large social event, inviting hundreds of people. While the intention may be to connect with a vast network, the individual may struggle to form meaningful connections due to the cognitive limitations of the Dunbar Number. This can result in a shallow and less fulfilling social experience.
  2. Business Scenarios: In a business context, a company may expand its workforce rapidly without considering the implications of the Dunbar Number. As the organization grows beyond the ideal range, communication and collaboration may suffer, leading to decreased efficiency, lower employee satisfaction, and a weakened sense of camaraderie.
  3. Public Policy-Making: Public policies that fail to acknowledge the cognitive limits of the Dunbar Number can overlook the importance of community engagement and personalized interactions. For example, a government initiative that aims to foster community bonds by organizing large-scale events may inadvertently undermine social cohesion, as individuals may struggle to establish meaningful connections in such expansive settings.

Mental Biases and Psychological Underpinnings

The Availability Bias plays a role in the Dunbar Number phenomenon. Our minds tend to prioritize and remember recent or easily accessible social connections, leading us to overestimate the number of relationships we can effectively maintain. This bias can lead to unrealistic expectations and decisions that do not align with our cognitive capacity.

The In-group Bias also influences the Dunbar Number. We have a natural inclination to prioritize and invest in relationships within our close-knit social circles. This bias can result in overlooking valuable connections outside of our immediate group, limiting our ability to broaden our perspectives and access diverse networks.

Practical Strategies to Mitigate the Dunbar Number Effect

  1. Prioritize Quality over Quantity: Instead of aiming for a large number of superficial connections, focus on cultivating a smaller set of deep and meaningful relationships. Invest time and effort in building and maintaining strong bonds with individuals who align with your values and goals.
  2. Embrace Diverse Networks: Actively seek out opportunities to connect with individuals from different backgrounds, industries, and perspectives. Engaging in activities and communities outside of your immediate social circle can help you expand your network and access fresh insights and opportunities.
  3. Utilize Technology Wisely: Leverage technology to enhance your social connections while being mindful of its limitations. Social media platforms can facilitate initial connections, but they should be complemented with face-to-face interactions to foster deeper relationships.
  4. Engage in Active Listening: Develop active listening skills to foster genuine connections. By attentively listening and empathizing with others, you can establish stronger bonds and build trust, enhancing the quality of your relationships within the limits of the Dunbar Number.


The Dunbar Number reminds us of the cognitive limitations we face in maintaining social connections. By understanding this mental model and the biases that contribute to it, we can make more informed decisions in personal, business, and public policy contexts. Prioritizing quality relationships, embracing diversity, leveraging technology wisely, and practicing active listening are key strategies to navigate the Dunbar Number effectively. By being aware of this mental trap and actively avoiding its pitfalls, we can cultivate richer social networks and make decisions that align with our best interests.

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