***Beginning of Abundance Excerpt: Dunbar’s Number***
About twenty years ago, Oxford University evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar discovered another problem with our local and linear perspectives. Dunbar was interested in the number of active interpersonal relationships that the human brain could process at one time. After examining global and historical trends, he found that people tend to self-organize in groups of 150. This explains why the U.S. military, through a long period of trial and error, concluded that 150 is the optimal size for a functional fighting unit. Similarly, when Dunbar examined the traffic patterns from social media sites such as Facebook, he found that while people may have thousands of “friends,” they actually interact with only 150 of them. Putting it all together, he realized that humans evolved in groups of 150, and this number — now known as Dunbar’s number — is the upper limit to how many interpersonal relationships our brains can process.
In contemporary society — where, for example, the nuclear family has replaced the extended family — very few of us actually maintain 150 relationships. But we still have this primitive pattern imprinted on our brain, so we fill those open slots with whomever we have the most daily “contact” — even if that contact comes only from watching that person on television. Gossip, in its earlier forms, contained information that was critical to survival because, in clans of 150, what happened to anyone had a direct impact on everyone. But this backfires today. The reason we care so much about what happens to the likes of Lady Gaga is not because her shenanigans will ever impact our lives; rather because our brain doesn’t realize there’s a difference between rock stars we know about and relatives we know.
On its own, this evolutionary artifact makes television even more addictive (perhaps costing us time and energy that could be spent bettering the planet), but Dunbar’s number never acts alone. Nor do any of the neurological processes discussed in this chapter. Our brain is a wonderfully integrated system, so these processes work in concert — and the symphony is not always pretty.
Because of amygdala function and media competition, our airwaves are full of prophets of doom. Because of the negativity bias and the authority bias — our tendency to trust authority figures — we’re inclined to believe them. And because of our local and linear brains — of which Dunbar’s number is but one example — we treat those authority figures as friends, which triggers the in-group bias (a tendency to give preferential treatment to those people we believe in our own group) and makes us trust them even more.
Once we start believing that the apocalypse is coming, the amygdala goes on high alert, filtering out most anything that says otherwise. Whatever information the amygdala doesn’t catch, our confirmation bias — which is now biased toward confirming our eminent destruction — certainly does. Taken in total, the result is a population convinced that the end is near and there’s not a damn thing to do about it.
This raises a final concern: what’s the truth? If our brain plays this much havoc with our ability to perceive reality, then what does reality really look like? It’s an important question. If we’re heading for disaster, then having these biases could be an asset. But this is where things get even stranger. Those facts have already been confirmed, and they are startling. Forget “the hole we’re in being too deep to get out of” — there’s really not much of a hole.
***End of Abundance Excerpt***