My nephew Joshua posted the following on Facebook yesterday:
Did you know the human brain can only process up to 150 active relationships? We can only care about that many people at a time. No wonder no one gives a shit about Haiti. Compassion is a limited resource, and most of us are tapped out.
… I have developed a theory: The only way people can ever reach a point where we stop war from happening, and actually help our fellow man in a truly Altruistic way (or to even take part in the global world we have created), we need to evolve into a species that actively manages a lot more relationships. Until then, the further away people seem, the more abstract and they will be to us and thus the more unimportant they will be.
He’s referring to Dunbar’s number which is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person. This number has been cited as the population of an average village in the Domesday Book, the ideal size of a church congregation and the average size of a company in the Army.
Examples of meaningful relationships might include:
- people you can go to in moments of great distress
- people you trust and on which you could rely
- people of which you know immediately the position in your overall social network
This may at least partially explain why in smaller social groups (small towns, smaller military units, families, clubs, etc) there are feelings of comradery, fellowship, and intimacy that you generally don’t find in larger groups such as cities, big corporations, and larger military units. My own experience seems to bear this out. I’ve always had a preference for living in small towns, working in smaller companies, and serving with small military units. In this smaller groups I have generally felt more at ease, more comfortable, more empowered and more connected to others in the group.
Is compassion a limited resource? I don’t know, maybe it is. Certainly, the resources available to an individual to put his compassion into action can be limited. How do we decide who gets those resources? Modern technology brings the plight of other human beings around the world into our awareness almost instantaneously and nearly constantly. It can be overwhelming and desensitizing, maybe to the point where we become apathetic.
Industrialization and technology have moved us from self-sustaining villages and tribes to vast collections of people who have no real relationships to one another. Within these masses we form small groups in which we forge tenuous loyalties, relationships, and bonds of compassion. I may be pessimistic in believing that, as a species, we are not likely to evolve to the point where people can form lasting social relationships with large numbers of other people. Occasionally, there is some event or catastrophe that brings diverse groups of people together in a common bond but it’s usually temporary, lasting only until the crisis passes, everyone loses interest, forgetting why the bond was originally formed, or people once again become self-absorbed in their own interests.
Not much over 100 years ago, society was largely agrarian and most people lived in self-sustaining small towns and villages. Technology and industrialization have caused us to live in closer proximity to one another and made us more interdependent but our technological advancements have not brought us closer as people. The abundance of information has not made us any less ignorant or more tolerant. We live in a world where anyone’s opinion can be propagated as fact, ignorance is embraced as knowledge and what passes for truth is wholly dependent on how well one manipulates the popular media.
I think we’d have to expand our capability for active relationships by more than a hundred-fold and I’m not sure that would be enough. Our brains may very well have the potential and we could possibly realize that potential once we convince ourselves that doing what’s right must come before what’s profitable and that peace is more honorable than war. Utopian? You bet your sweet ass it is!