150: the Magic Number

Truly a Basic feature of life. The magic number is 150. When I was reading a Malcolm Gladwell book I was fascinated by his diving under data staring right at us to understand the dynamics of human action and interaction. He and his wife were at a hockey game (he’s Canadian) and his wife mentioned what a coincidence it was that most of the players had the same birthdate. Of course, her clueless husband, they’re all about the same age. No, she replied, their birthdates fall in the first 3 months of the year. Wow! What’s that about. If you remember, he figured out that since hockey players start at about age 4 or 5 and cohorts are formed by year of birth, those born in Jan, Feb, and March were always older by a few months than their cocohorts (?) and therefore, at that tender age, more mature, bigger, faster, stronger AND therefore, got selected for top teams and top training. Brilliant.
Being interested in human groups, I was struck by his story of the office manager who said he watches the parking lot – and the buildings and parking lots of the company were of the same size – and when people begin parking on berms, it was time to open a new office building. The magic number? 150. But what was magic about it? And here this fascinating bit of information is deepened in Susan Pinker’s book The Village Effect. At over 150, a group begins to lose cohesion. And the reason for that? Because the human brain has, apparently, evolved to keep track of relationships and can effectively track only that number and fewer. Beyond 150, ties loosen and cliques form, creating factions that then compete.
Having read that, I was interested in knowing where else this phenomenon occurred. I have a book on villages I haven’t read yet and the Gladwell book (I don’t remember which one it was; I read all 3: Blink, The Tipping Point, and Outliers) had other information in it but I don’t own it. So it was with a start and a shout that I saw this factoid in Susan Pinker’s book The Village Effect. Here the researcher, Robin Dunbar, gives a list of institutions that break at around 150: clan size of traditional hunter-gatherers; size of Neolithic villages; size of villages wiped out by Wm the Conqueror (??); size of English country village in 18th century; Roman fighting unit; company size in U.S. & Canadian military; Christmas card recipients on a typical list; number of core scholars in a sub-discipline; average size of Amish or Hutterite community; number of employees a business can manage without absenteeism or hierarchical management structures.
Now Gladwell has been accused of oversimplifying and using anecdotal data, all of which makes for good reading, but Dunbar is a scholar, so perhaps we have a solid block in the edifice of human society. I will try to keep this in mind as I pursue my Basics entry (q.v.).

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