Growth: Dunbars Number and what it says about you

Sometimes you stumble upon something so ridiculously simple that it just blows your mind and you start to realize you have been calibrating against the wrong things. One of those things in my life has been the moment I stumbled upon’s Dunbar’s number(s).

Basics on Dunbar’s Number(s)

What is it? Well, it’s simple. Robin Dunbar is a professor in anthropology and evolutionary psychology. And he realized basically how our cognitive capacity relates the the size of our social networks based on how “close” we are to people in this social network.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it.  Although I like to challenge lots of studies I read just based on lack of merit on how they make the transfer of internal vs. external validity – I even wrote about it in this incomplete research proposal back in 2011 -, this just seems to somehow pan out and make sense.
Look at this completely unsolicited source:

So in essence, it stats that your cognitive capacity to maintain a relationship with someone that is „laways there for you“ or an intimate relationship is limited to 5 people.
The same is true for true close friends or soul mates, limited to 15 people. 50 people for people who you would trust to get drunk with and have weird moments with. The active or close network. 150 folks in your professional inner circle or your personal network. Etc.

Applications to law and negotiation

An easy way to apply this is to ask yourself how to uncover lies or corner people. Harder in your 5-circle or 15 circle. But in a professional setting, chances are you meet the 50 or 150 circle. Different game to play in cornering someone or getting people to rat each other out. More difficult in Dunbar 5 circle. But then again, hardly anyone you will associate with. The Dunbar 15 circle is where most of investigations and snitching will take place. And yes, people neglet their 15 circle all the time. Making them vulernable. And what are you if you neglet your 15 circle? YEs, a snob. But you do it to pump up your 50 circle. Normal. Rational. But hard to make a 50 member a 15 member. That’s the whole are of rising. Works with some universities or if you make people money and are loyal. Think about all this stuff from a Dunbar perspectice, and it starts making sense.

Looking around yourself

This stuff becomes wildly interesting. When I consider judging people around me, I wonder what their Dunbar circles are. Who are the 5 people they deal with and trust on a family level of trust? Who are the folks they are associating with, laughin with, telling their deepest secrets and who they collude with in lies and joint efforts. Who are the 50 people they are willing to commit minor crimes with. Which they regard as equals. As peers. With whom they would start a business with if terms were negotiated well. And who are the 150 people they have in their “wider network” which are the 150 people the person desires and has the ambition to be associated with considering that “we are the average of the people we associate with”. Etc.

The ideal circle model

It is a much revealing number. But the most important question is: who are the people in your life and who do you think they should be?
Just consider you could be whoever you want to be? For Harvey specter in Suits, the 50-circle would be 4 people: Donna, Mike, Jessica, Louis. The 150 would be the highest playing clients there are. The soulmates would be his brother, mother, his to-be-girlfriend.
Looking at Designated Surviver, the 5 is family again, the 15 is white house staff including the PR guy, the chief of staff alternatives, etc. The 50 includes the FBI agent and key staff in the white house. The 150 would include older university friends and people to call when in trouble.
Considering a ficticious investment prodigy similar to “Billions” main actor Robert Axelrod, the 5 again is family and maybe 1 or two key prodigies in his firm. 15 is his key trusted staff and maybe someone that opens the door for him. Like that undercover dirt-handling guy like Mike Wagner. Or Dough Stamper in House of Cards. The 50 ideally would be either top Fortune 500 folks, Presidents of the USA, or fellow hedge fund folks. The 150 would be comprised of the rest of the Fortune 500 folks. Top named partnes of top legal firms. Key people at buldge bracked investment banks such a Loyd and Co or PE folks such as Eric, or conglomerate/Family office such as the other  George, Warren. Or folks such as Bill, Elon and Eric.
It is easy to understand. Common and shared interest, sufficient leverage, sufficient equality on network and return power. Etc.
But that is the Western world view of everything. What about “the Core” Jingping? What about Jack China Jack? What about the “unnamed” folks from Southeast APAC? The LatAm folks?
If you could choose your Dunbar’s circles and who fits in, who would it be?

Playing out life as growth in Dunbar circles

And if you know who it would be? How do you get there? I am assuring you, after your 30s, it is not going to be a school, or network that gets you there. It is going to be your current Dunbar’s circle set-up and how you move ahead.
That is why Dunbar’s number changed my way of looking at things. And why I don’t care about your best lawyer at Wachtell, Lipton, Rose & Kratz, about Eric Schwarzman, or Larry Fink.
If you want to know who you want to be, then define who you want to be with. Once you figured that out, just go there.
If you want to make investments work, who do you want to know? Do you want Trump? Xi? Ma? Soros? Well, think about it.


Am I suggesting to live life according to this? Probably not. Is it worth to have this view on things? Probably, yes. Is this a framework to judge other’s on how ambitious they are? Absolutely. If you have someone to be a prodigy in investments and he is staying or chasing dunbar 15 circles in a tier 5 local network, you are not looking at an investment prodigy. The witchhunter or bull killer in your local zoo that didn’t go NYC, San Fran, Beijing, Tel Aviv and Co, isn’t global scale bull killer. He is just someone chasing the local ecosystem and trying to take a spot that has rents attached. Think about it. Appreciate it. And do your calcs on expectations based on it.

Ultimate lesson

If you accept Dunbar’s laws. You are essentially raising the question who is in your circles. And if you accept that who you associate with is who you are, you are wondering how to improve the quality of your dunbar circle. If you also accept that your circles bear risk and danger to your resources, you think again from this perspectice. Etc. Etc. Dunbar is powerful. It tells you who the people are you meet based on what they tell you who they are and who they know on which level of personal connection. And it tells you if you are off-track with your circle. It is a great framework. That is why I covered it.


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