# Dunbar's Function

27 31 December 2008 02:26AM

The study of eudaimonic community sizes began with a seemingly silly method of calculation:  Robin Dunbar calculated the correlation between the (logs of the) relative volume of the neocortex and observed group size in primates, then extended the graph outward to get the group size for a primate with a human-sized neocortex.  You immediately ask, "How much of the variance in primate group size can you explain like that, anyway?" and the answer is 76% of the variance among 36 primate genera, which is respectable.  Dunbar came up with a group size of 148.  Rounded to 150, and with the confidence interval of 100 to 230 tossed out the window, this became known as "Dunbar's Number".

It's probably fair to say that a literal interpretation of this number is more or less bogus.

There was a bit more to it than that, of course.  Dunbar went looking for corroborative evidence from studies of corporations, hunter-gatherer tribes, and utopian communities.  Hutterite farming communities, for example, had a rule that they must split at 150—with the rationale explicitly given that it was impossible to control behavior through peer pressure beyond that point.

But 30-50 would be a typical size for a cohesive hunter-gatherer band; 150 is more the size of a cultural lineage of related bands.  Life With Alacrity has an excellent series on Dunbar's Number which exhibits e.g. a histogram of Ultima Online guild sizes—with the peak at 60, not 150.  LWA also cites further research by PARC's Yee and Ducheneaut showing that maximum internal cohesiveness, measured in the interconnectedness of group members, occurs at a World of Warcraft guild size of 50.  (Stop laughing; you can get much more detailed data on organizational dynamics if it all happens inside a computer server.)

And Dunbar himself did another regression and found that a community of 150 primates would have to spend 43% of its time on social grooming, which Dunbar interpreted as suggesting that 150 was an upper bound rather than an optimum, when groups were highly incentivized to stay together.  150 people does sound like a lot of employees for a tight-knit startup, doesn't it?

Also from Life With Alacrity:

A group of 3 is often unstable, with one person feeling left out, or else one person controlling the others by being the "split" vote.  A group of 4 often devolves into two pairs...  At 5 to 8 people, you can have a meeting where everyone can speak out about what the entire group is doing, and everyone feels highly empowered.  However, at 9 to 12 people this begins to break down —not enough "attention" is given to everyone and meetings risk becoming either too noisy, too boring, too long, or some combination thereof.

As you grow past 12 or so employees, you must start specializing and having departments and direct reports; however, you are not quite large enough for this to be efficient, and thus much employee time that you put toward management tasks is wasted.  Only as you approach and pass 25 people does having simple departments and managers begin to work again...

I've already noted the next chasm when you go beyond 80 people, which I think is the point that Dunbar's Number actually marks for a non-survival oriented group.  Even at this lower point, the noise level created by required socialization becomes an issue, and filtering becomes essential.  As you approach 150 this begins to be unmanageable...

LWA suggests that community satisfaction has two peaks, one at size ~7 for simple groups, and one at ~60 for complex groups; and that any community has to fraction, one way or another, by the time it approaches Dunbar's Number.

One of the primary principles of evolutionary psychology is that "Our modern skulls house a stone age mind" (saith Tooby and Cosmides).  You can interpret all sorts of angst as the friction of a stone age mind rubbing against a modern world that isn't like the hunter-gatherer environment the brain evolved to handle.

We may not directly interact with most of the other six billion people in the world, but we still live in a world much larger than Dunbar's Number.

Or to say it with appropriate generality: taking our current brain size and mind design as the input, we live in a world much larger than Dunbar's Function for minds of our type.

Consider some of the consequences:

If you work in a large company, you probably don't know your tribal chief on any personal level, and may not even be able to get access to him.  For every rule within your company, you may not know the person who decided on that rule, and have no realistic way to talk to them about the effects of that rule on you.  Large amounts of the organizational structure of your life are beyond your ability to control, or even talk about with the controllers; directives that have major effects on you, may be handed down from a level you can't reach.

If you live in a large country, you probably don't know your President or Prime Minister on a personal level, and may not even be able to get a few hours' chat; you live under laws and regulations that you didn't make, and you can't talk to the people who made them.

This is a non-ancestral condition.  Even children, while they may live under the dictatorial rule of their parents, can at least personally meet and talk to their tyrants. You could expect this unnatural (that is, non-EEA) condition to create some amount of anomie.

Though it's a side issue, what's even more... interesting.... is the way that our brains simply haven't updated to their diminished power in a super-Dunbarian world.  We just go on debating politics, feverishly applying our valuable brain time to finding better ways to run the world, with just the same fervent intensity that would be appropriate if we were in a small tribe where we could persuade people to change things.

If people don't like being part of large organizations and countries, why do they stick around?  Because of another non-ancestral condition—you can't just gather your more sensible friends, leave the band, and gather nuts and berries somewhere else.  If I had to cite two non-regulatory barriers at work, it would be (a) the cost of capital equipment, and (b) the surrounding web of contacts and contracts—a web of installed relationships not easily duplicated by a new company.

I suspect that this is a major part of where the stereotype of Technology as the Machine Death-Force comes from—that along with the professional specialization and the expensive tools, you end up in social structures over which you have much less control.  Some of the fear of creating a powerful AI "even if Friendly" may come from that stereotypical anomie—that you're creating a stronger Machine Death-Force to regulate your life.

But we already live in a world, right now, where people are less in control of their social destinies than they would be in a hunter-gatherer band, because it's harder to talk to the tribal chief or (if that fails) leave unpleasant restrictions and start your own country.  There is an opportunity for progress here.

Another problem with our oversized world is the illusion of increased competition.  There's that famous survey which showed that Harvard students would rather make \$50,000 if their peers were making \$25,000 than make \$100,000 if their peers were receiving \$200,000—and worse, they weren't necessarily wrong about what would make them happy.  With a fixed income, you're unhappier at the low end of a high-class neighborhood than the high end of a middle-class neighborhood.

But in a "neighborhood" the size of Earth—well, you're actually quite unlikely to run into either Bill Gates or Angelina Jolie on any given day.  But the media relentlessly bombards you with stories about the interesting people who are much richer than you or much more attractive, as if they actually constituted a large fraction of the world.  (This is a combination of biased availability, and a difficulty in discounting tiny fractions.)

Now you could say that our hedonic relativism is one of the least pleasant aspects of human nature.  And I might agree with you about that.  But I tend to think that deep changes of brain design and emotional architecture should be taken slowly, and so it makes sense to look at the environment too.

If you lived in a world the size of a hunter-gatherer band, then it would be easier to find something important at which to be the best—or do something that genuinely struck you as important, without becoming lost in a vast crowd of others with similar ideas.

The eudaimonic size of a community as a function of the component minds' intelligence might be given by the degree to which those minds find it natural to specialize—the number of different professions that you can excel at, without having to invent professions just to excel at.  Being the best at Go is one thing, if many people know about Go and play it.  Being the best at "playing tennis using a football" is easier to achieve, but it also seems a tad... artificial.

Call a specialization "natural" if it will arise without an oversupply of potential entrants.  Newton could specialize in "physics", but today it would not be possible to specialize in "physics"—even if you were the only potential physicist in the world, you couldn't achieve expertise in all the physics known to modern-day humanity.  You'd have to pick, say, quantum field theory, or some particular approach to QFT.  But not QFT over left-handed bibble-braids with cherries on top; that's what happens when there are a thousand other workers in your field and everyone is desperate for some way to differentiate themselves.

When you look at it that way, then there must be much more than 50 natural specializations in the modern world—but still much less than six billion.  By the same logic as the original Dunbar's Number, if there are so many different professional specialties that no one person has heard of them all, then you won't know who to consult about any given topic.

But if people keep getting smarter and learning more—expanding the number of relationships they can track, maintaining them more efficiently—and naturally specializing further as more knowledge is discovered and we become able to conceptualize more complex areas of study—and if the population growth rate stays under the rate of increase of Dunbar's Function—then eventually there could be a single community of sentients, and it really would be a single community.

Part of The Fun Theory Sequence

Next post: "In Praise of Boredom"

Previous post: "Amputation of Destiny"

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Comment author: 31 December 2008 02:56:35AM 15 points [-]

Via Scientific American magazine:

Fallacy 3: “Our Modern Skulls House a Stone Age Mind” Pop EP’s claim that human nature was designed during the Pleistocene, when our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers, gets it wrong on both ends of the epoch.

...

The view that “our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind” gets things wrong on the contemporary end of our evolutionary history as well. The idea that we are stuck with a Pleistocene-adapted psychology greatly underestimates the rate at which natural and sexual selection can drive evolutionary change. Recent studies have demonstrated that selection can radically alter the life-history traits of a population in as few as 18 generations (for humans, roughly 450 years).

Of course, such rapid evolution can occur only with significant change in the selection pressures acting on a population. But environmental change since the Pleistocene has unquestionably altered the selection pressures on human psychology. The agricultural and industrial revolutions precipitated fundamental changes in the social structures of human populations, which in turn altered the challenges humans face when acquiring resources, mating, forming alliances or negotiating status hierarchies. Other human activities—ranging from constructing shelter to preserving food, from contraception to organized education—have also consistently altered the selection pressures. Because we have clear examples of post-Pleistocene physiological adaptation to changing environmental demands (such as malaria resistance), we have no reason to doubt similar psychological evolution.

Comment author: 31 December 2008 03:18:26AM 4 points [-]

Tabarrok casts some doubt on the negative externality of wealthy peers: http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2007/08/home-envy.html

I would say the revealed preference of migration supports him.

Comment author: 06 June 2012 09:19:29PM 1 point [-]

This is also incredibly heartening, because it means that all we need to do to get rid of poverty it point out to rich people how much happiness they are losing by living in a world full of poor people. Thus they'll have an incentive to spend the resources necessary to make poverty go away.

Comment author: 31 December 2008 03:43:25AM 4 points [-]

But we already live in a world, right now, where people are less in control of their social destinies than they would be in a hunter-gatherer band, because it's harder to talk to the tribal chief or (if that fails) leave unpleasant restrictions and start your own country. There is an opportunity for progress here.

I'm working on it!

Another problem with our oversized world is the illusion of increased competition.. in a "neighborhood" the size of Earth - well, you're actually quite unlikely to run into either Bill Gates or Angelina Jolie on any given day. But the media relentlessly bombards you with stories about the interesting people who are much richer than you or much more attractive, as if they actually constituted a large fraction of the world.

Comment author: 31 December 2008 03:44:04AM 2 points [-]

We just go on debating politics, feverishly applying our valuable brain time to finding better ways to run the world, with just the same fervent intensity that would be appropriate if we were in a small tribe where we could persuade people to change things.

Implication being that we're wasting our time?

Hope not, as debating politics is also a way to learn and understand politics. National or international politics are the equivalent of, say, the weather - something we experience, can't affect, but which we surely want to understand.

Comment author: 06 June 2012 09:20:24PM 2 points [-]

Also, you do get to vote. Only once every few years, but often enough to make a difference.

Comment author: 31 December 2008 03:44:22AM 1 point [-]

TGGP: with respect to migration, I always thought the idea was to immigrate to a land of "opportunity" -- that is, the attraction is that if you move to America (or wherever) you'll have more social AND economic mobility. I know immigrants (to my own country, Canada) who actually were quite despondent for a while after arriving here because, while their nominal income increased their relative social position took a serious dive (to stereotype, think of an Indian doctor working here as a code monkey).

It seems to me the phenomena Eliezer is describing are well illustrated by (my own experience in) academia. On the one hand people overspecialize to find a sufficiently small pond that they can be the big fish. On the other, the superstars I know best are extraordinarily competitive/driven and tend to think of the whole world as consisting of other high-achieving academics and assorted debris, thus reducing the "world" literally to a few hundred monkeyspheres in size.

Comment author: 31 December 2008 03:48:59AM 1 point [-]

"[...] naturally specializing further as more knowledge is discovered and we become able to conceptualize more complex areas of study [...]"

So, how does this spiral of specialization square with living by one's own strength?

Could there be a niche for generalists?

Comment author: 22 April 2016 04:51:23PM 0 points [-]

Maybe not generalists, but cross-specialists to work against the silo effect. For example, someone who knew both number theory and quantum physics deeply might make some important discoveries.

Then, these cross-specialists could themselves caucus to create a kind of synthetic "generalist" viewpoint, like a Council of Experts.

Comment author: 31 December 2008 04:10:40AM 1 point [-]

@Eli

"For every rule within your company, you may not know the person who decided on that rule, and have no realistic way to talk to them about the effects of that rule on you."

Which is one reason I run the prediction market. Corporate markets, once they take strong root, can change the organization, just as Robin predicted. It takes a little time though.

"Angelina Jolie"

Someone has to sit on top of the female monkey hierarchy, Eli. We really don't care who it is, or if we meet her, as long as we can kind of relate to her somehow and understand the unspoken rules by which she is judged, so we can rank ourselves in this order and know where we sit ourselves.

On reflection, I may have preferred her when she was a scary skank sporting a vial of blood around her neck who French-kissed her brother. But I'm an outlier.

Comment author: 31 December 2008 04:31:55AM 2 points [-]

'Buller is well known in the community he is attacking for misrepresenting the claims of the literature, ignoring evidence that contradicts his views, and generally engaging in academic malpractice. (He also doesn't understand the most basic principle in evolutionary biology, adaptationism.) Responses to these criticisms, which he has made before, are gathered here:

Comment author: 31 December 2008 04:48:08AM -1 points [-]

frelkins: Someone has to sit on top of the female monkey hierarchy, Eli. We really don't care who it is, or if we meet her, as long as we can kind of relate to her somehow and understand the unspoken rules by which she is judged, so we can rank ourselves in this order and know where we sit ourselves.

None of this addresses the point: we compare ourselves to a much bigger hierarchy than we were programmed for, which means far more losers and far fewer winners. Instead of winning by being the best female monkey out of dozens, you have to be the best female monkey out of tens of millions to billions. That's a much tougher contest, and it's hard on us psychologically.

Comment author: 06 June 2012 09:22:58PM 0 points [-]

This may also explain why people in modern societies (especially women) have such terrible body image. We feel like disgusting monstrous freaks when in fact we are objectively prettier than our ancestors were even a few generations ago. (Men are taller, breasts are bigger... the only major backslide is obesity, and that is to some extent a product of poor body image.)

Comment author: [deleted] 06 June 2012 10:00:26PM 1 point [-]

the only major backslide is obesity, and that is to some extent a product of poor body image

Wait... What? Maybe for men, but women who take too seriously media stereotypes tend to be too thin, rather than too fat.

Comment author: 07 June 2012 02:18:12AM -1 points [-]

Have you met any fat people?

I mean that in all seriousness: Talk to some fat people. If you are close enough to them, ask them why they are fat. The reasons they give will generally boil down to "I couldn't possibly meet the standards of our society, so why bother? It's easier to just eat whatever I want and never exercise."

People with healthy body image concepts are sometimes "overweight" (in BMI, etc.), but they are never really fat---they don't ever reach full morbid obesity. This is because they are concerned about their health, not how they appear to others.

Comment author: [deleted] 07 June 2012 11:17:48AM *  1 point [-]

The fat people I know don't appear to give a damn about “the standards of our society”. My morbidly obese grandmother (BMI around 40) does think “why bother? It's easier to just eat whatever I want and never exercise”, but she also thinks the same about lots of other things (e.g. she smokes over a pack of cigarettes a day, it's hard to convince her to wear a cast when she breaks a bone, etc. -- she appears to be just waiting to die), and my parents and my sister (BMIs all around 30) say “I'm not that fat -- look at grandma for instance” (and they also insist that I (BMI around 25) am absurdly skinny).

Comment author: 07 June 2012 11:39:09AM 4 points [-]

BMI. Those things are fun. If I spend enough time in the gym I can get myself up to "Obese".

Comment author: [deleted] 07 June 2012 12:50:21PM 1 point [-]

Yeah, I weigh about the same as I did two years and a half ago, but I looked and felt much fatter back then. (OTOH none of the other people I mentioned in the grandparent exercise regularly, and anyway I only used the BMI because it was the quickest quantitative measure I could think of.)

Comment author: [deleted] 07 June 2012 02:27:50PM 0 points [-]

Oh, I should clarify that my arguments were not meant to chastise you for using BMI. I don't have any problem with it in the way you use it; it looks like it falls under argument two but it's clear that you're using it as a rough signal of degrees of morbid obesity.

Comment author: 22 April 2016 04:54:15PM 0 points [-]

BMI assumes you are the normal semi-sedentary modern person. It's not meant to be used on serious athletes or weightlifters. For 95% plus of the population, BMI is a pretty accurate metric.

Comment author: 22 April 2016 07:21:27PM 3 points [-]

BMI assumes you are the normal semi-sedentary modern person.

More importantly, BMI assumes you are of average height. Human weight doesn't actually scale by the square root of height, so BMI has a systemic bias for tall people (too high) and for short people (too low).

As far as I recall, BMI was designed as a tool to compare whole populations (where the height bias averages out) and people who created it explicitly said that it's not a good metric to evaluate individuals.

Comment author: 22 April 2016 09:19:08PM *  0 points [-]

While it's true that BMI is a rough metric and gets rougher when you're dealing with unusual proportions or body compositions, those effects are often exaggerated. An athletic male of 6 feet 6 inches (99.8th percentile) and 210 pounds, which is about what you'd find in your average pro basketball player, would score as normal weight.

Comment author: 23 April 2016 12:06:42AM 1 point [-]

Too rough for my taste. Once your average pro basketball player adds 10 lbs of pure muscle and become 6'6'' at 220 lbs, BMI will declare him to be overweight.

Comment author: 07 June 2012 12:03:13PM 5 points [-]

I am confused by this exchange. When we talk about cognitive bias, we accept data that contradicts self-reports all the time. So there is substantial evidence that self-reports about mental processes are unreliable. But when the topic shifts to social norms, self-reports are considered reliable again? I notice I am confused.

Comment author: [deleted] 07 June 2012 12:40:53PM *  9 points [-]

BMI is a ridiculous measure of obesity as far as I'm concerned. I know this doesn't directly respond to your comment, but I'm listing my main arguments here for posterity.

For anecdotal context I'm about ten or fifteen kilograms above the weight I was when I was in secondary school (i.e., fully-grown), ate a (modulo American (hi John_Maxwell_IV!)) healthy diet, and led an active lifestyle. I consider this a reasonably good approximation to my "healthy weight", but it corresponds to a BMI of 27.3. For philosophical context I'm not a "fat apologist" either; it is painfully obvious that obesity causes higher morbidity. It should go without saying that higher morbidity is (ceteris paribus) bad.

In no particular order:

• The units are absolutely meaningless. If humans are to a zeroth approximation cylinders with comparable aspect ratios and average density, then weight is proportional to volume, which is proportional to height cubed, but BMI is the ratio of weight with height squared. NB: This is only a zeroth approximation; tall people tend to have different aspect ratios, and the power law approximation is probably better served by an exponent somewhere between two and three. See MacKay for more details.

• BMI gives less information than intuition on extreme cases: army1987's grandmother is indistinguishable from a 2000-era bodybuilder. The classical response to this objection is that BMI needs to be augmented with other statistics (typically given ad-hoc: waist-to-height ratio, waist circumference, body fat percentage, and etc.), but this is not how BMI is used "in the wild." I've observed several online cases (yes, this is weak evidence here) of both 25-30's becoming obsessed with getting down to 20-25 (even at the expense of muscle), and on the other end 17-20's becoming obsessed with not going over 25 (even through gaining muscle).

• Even if BMI alone doesn't help us classify the ~35+ and the ~20- folks, it is possible to argue that it is useful for the people in between. At this point Goodhart's law kicks in: the "easiest" (for some value of ease) way to lower your BMI is to get a liposuction (or more absurdly, an amputation), but that has little effect on overall health. Less absurdly, I claim that body composition is just too varied and complicated to be reasonably treated with a single statistic.

• There is a good amount of fake accuracy in reporting BMI to three significant figures, as mass in kilograms is usually only accurate to 1.2-1.5 places. Even healthy people gain and/or lose two or three kilograms over the course of a year.

• For obesity diagnosis (i.e., in a medical setting), BMI is easily replaced with, in decreasing order of accuracy and cost, 1) displacement measurement of body fat percentage, 2) electrical measurement of body fat percentage (despite being horrifically lossy), 3) qualitative visual assessment of body fat percentage.

• For overall health (i.e., in a non-medical setting), BMI is less easily replaced with body fat percentage. Setting aside akrasia, there's a great deal of psychological baggage that tends to mind-kill one's ability to judge one's own weight. To make matters worse, my own criteria (weight maintained after puberty in an active lifestyle) is depressingly ineffective in light of widespread childhood obesity. I admit I don't yet have a good solution to this problem, but I claim that BMI obsession is overall more harmful than whatever lay purpose it serves.

Comment author: [deleted] 07 June 2012 01:10:27PM 1 point [-]

At this point Goodhart's law kicks in

Do people have any incentive to be interested in the number on the scales itself, regardless of its effects on health and looks?

Comment author: [deleted] 07 June 2012 01:22:47PM *  4 points [-]

I don't know for certain, but it seems to me that a common failure mode for people struggling with weight is paying too much concern to various statistics, invented or not.

Disclaimer: I don't believe the following is good general advice. I don't have any theory backing it up.

At this point, in my own current work, the most useful thing I've implemented is applying the nameless virtue to this. If I want to look better, then I need to have goals that involve looking better; if I want more endurance, I need to have goals that involve running harder and longer, and etc. It seems trivial but I don't see very much of it in the fitness community.

Comment author: 07 June 2012 03:48:31PM 1 point [-]

Fit Fatties

Ragen Chastain

I'm not going to say that athletic fat people are typical, but they do exist.

Comment author: 31 December 2008 05:29:33AM 4 points [-]

@Patri

"Instead of winning by being the best female monkey"

Girlworld isn't like that, Patri. Isn't that guyworld you're describing? I don't have be the best skirt monkey at all to "win," if you consider what my chick definition of winning is. "Being the best" is what male monkeys need to be - the gorilla troupe's got only 1 alpha silverback.

Whereas all I need to be is just high enough in the harem hierarchy that the silverback will do me when I solicit him and I have enough social support among my female relatives to raise his kids -- or the kids I am passing off as his. As a female, I like a larger social network very much, more help with child rearing and more useful alliances.

However a larger group does make it harder to be that 1 silverback, I agree.

Comment author: 06 June 2012 09:24:06PM 0 points [-]

You're assuming humans are polygynous.

But in terms of observed behavior... we're actually pretty close to monogamous (with a side of polygyny occasionally thrown in).

Hate to break it to you, but female humans also have to compete pretty hard for mates.

Comment author: [deleted] 06 June 2012 09:55:12PM 1 point [-]

But in terms of observed behavior... we're actually pretty close to monogamous (with a side of polygyny occasionally thrown in).

Doesn't it vary from culture to culture?

Comment author: 31 December 2008 06:03:38AM 4 points [-]

But we already live in a world, right now, where people are less in control of their social destinies than they would be in a hunter-gatherer band, because it's harder to talk to the tribal chief or (if that fails) leave unpleasant restrictions and start your own country. There is an opportunity for progress here.

I strongly disagree with this statement. A tribal tyrant likely has much greater effect on someone's personal life than a president or legislator. Its probably harder to start your own country today, but its not harder to leave your country (tribe) to join another. I'd bet its a lot easier, actually. In modern times, people are parts of many different hierarchies, each of which directly impacts their person life. If they don't like one hierarchy, then can leave it. A tribe of 50 is like a small high school; you can't avoid the bullies, and those on the bottom of the totem pole often just stay there. In the real world, freedom of association combined with modern technologies mean the oppressed can often simply avoid oppressors (or the poor can avoid associating with the rich, the dumb with the smart, etc).

I think you're stretch evolutionary psych a bit too far. Yes people spend a lot of time arguing about how to fix the world, as if they could, but doing so is a signal of intelligence, loyalty to certain groups (i.e., liberals over conservatives), and probably other things I'm not thinking of. If people actually argued politics because their stone-age minds told them it was important, they'd do so more seriously. Instead, political decision-making is a mockery of science and truth (e.g., Robin Hanson and Bryan Caplan's critiques of democracies).

In other words, I think the greater freedom of association and better communication and transportation technologies have reduced negative hierarchical externalities. If people cared so much about relative income, they'd take the \$100k over the \$50k, and simply find new friends that weren't making more money than them. Of course, discussing money is impolite partially because it creates these externalities (though we do need to distinguish between stated preferences and revealed preferences; TGGP's link is excellent). So I don't see how our stone-age brains are all that handicapped here. We aren't living in tribal bands, where we need personal relationships for reliable trade. Losers in one hierarchy can simply leave it and join another (e.g., the school nerd playing WoW over varsity sports). Our institutions and technologies have evolved to deal with hierarchical issues.

This is getting rather off-topic, but there is an excellent EconTalk podcast where Russ Roberts blows some holes in inequality externality arguments (specifically how they can exist when most people don't know their neighbor's income with any sort of accuracy?).

Comment author: 31 December 2008 07:10:32AM 1 point [-]

Though it's a side issue, what's even more... interesting.... is the way that our brains simply haven't updated to their diminished power in a super-Dunbarian world. We just go on debating politics, feverishly applying our valuable brain time to finding better ways to run the world, with just the same fervent intensity that would be appropriate if we were in a small tribe where we could persuade people to change things.

Thank you. That's one of those insights that makes this blog worth reading.

Comment author: 09 January 2011 07:47:51PM 2 points [-]

Or in looking at it another way... we can change politics but choose not to. For example, a researcher at TED was explaining how politicians are far more receptive to written letters than any other method of communication; even to the point where a well written letter was enough to change their vote on a topic.

Failing that, we always joke about how special interest groups have enough money to get close to and negotiate with politicians. However; nothing stops any of us from starting our own group, taking donations and having our hired employees go to the capital and get our word in.

It sounds more and more like the monkey sphere is an argument for not bothering to do any of the things that could change the particular problems affecting us

Comment author: 31 December 2008 07:48:30AM 2 points [-]

When I discuss politics, it's almost always primarily for the entertainment value. It's like reading about quantum physics, or how to play better chess.

Comment author: 31 December 2008 11:01:35AM 3 points [-]

One of the primary principles of evolutionary psychology is that "Our modern skulls house a stone age mind"

Our minds are made by (essentially) stone-age genes, but they import up-to-date memes - and are a product of influences from both sources.

So: our minds are actually pretty radically different from stone-age minds - because they have downloaded and are running a very different set of brain-software routines. This influence of memes explains why modern society is so different from the societies present in the stone age.

Comment author: 31 December 2008 01:03:53PM 0 points [-]

Yes humans are better at dealing with groups of size 7 and 50, but I don't think that has much to do with your complaint. You are basically noticing that you would probably be the alpha male in a tribe of 50, ruling all you surveyed, and wouldn't that be cool. Or in a world of 5000 people you'd be one of the top 100, and everyone would know your name, and wouldn't that be cool. Even we had better ingrown tools for dealing with larger social groups, you'd still have to face the fact that as a small creature in a vast social world, most such creatures can't expect to be very widely known or influential.

Comment author: 31 December 2008 02:17:40PM 6 points [-]

"But the media relentlessly bombards you with stories about the interesting people who are much richer than you or much more attractive, as if they actually constituted a large fraction of the world."

This seems to be at least part of the explanation why television is the most important lifestyle factor. Studies of factors influencing both happiness and evolutionary fitness have found television is the one thing that really stands out above the noise -- the less of it you watch, the better off you are in every way.

The Internet is a much better way to interact with the world, both because it lets you choose a community of reasonable size to be involved with, and because it's active rather than passive -- you can do something to improve your status on a mailing list, whereas you can't do anything to improve your status relative to Angelina Jolie (the learned helplessness affect again).

Comment author: 31 December 2008 05:33:51PM 0 points [-]

But we already live in a world, right now, where people are less in control of their social destinies than they would be in a hunter-gatherer band...

If you lived in a world the size of a hunter-gatherer band, then it would be easier to find something important at which to be the best - or do something that genuinely struck you as important, without becoming lost in a vast crowd of others with similar ideas.

Can you see the contradiction, bemoaning that people are now "less in control" while exercising ever-increasing freedom of expression? Harder to "find something important" with so many more opportunities available? Can you see the confusion over context that is increasingly not ours to control?

Eliezer, here again you demonstrate your bias in favor of the context of the individual. Dunbar's (and others') observations on organizational dynamics apply generally, while your interpretation appears to speak quite specifically of your experience of Western culture and your own perceived place in the scheme of things.

Plentiful contrary views exist to support a sense of meaning, purpose, pride implicit in the recognition of competent contribution to community without the (assumed) need to be seen as extraordinary. Especially still in modern Japan and Asia, the norm is to bask in recognition of competent contribution and to recoil from any suggestion that one might substantially stand out. False modesty this is not. In Western society too, examples of fulfillment and recognition through service run deeply, although this is belied in the (entertainment) media.

Within any society, recognition confers added fitness, but to satisfice it is not necessary to be extraordinary.

But if people keep getting smarter and learning more - expanding the number of relationships they can track, maintaining them more efficiently...[relative to the size of the interacting population]..then eventually there could be a single community of sentients, and it really would be a single community.

Compare:

But as the cultural matrix keeps getting smarterâ€”supporting increasing degrees of freedom with increasing probabilityâ€”then eventually you could see self-similarity of agency over increasing scale, and it really would be a fractal agency.

Well, regardless of present point of viewâ€”wishing all a rewarding New Year!

Comment author: 31 December 2008 05:56:19PM 4 points [-]

Wallace: The Internet is a much better way to interact with the world, both because it lets you choose a community of reasonable size to be involved with, and because it's active rather than passive -- you can do something to improve your status on a mailing list, whereas you can't do anything to improve your status relative to Angelina Jolie (the learned helplessness affect again).

I'd like to see a study confirming that. The Internet is more addictive than television and I highly suspect it drains more life-force.

Even we had better ingrown tools for dealing with larger social groups, you'd still have to face the fact that as a small creature in a vast social world, most such creatures can't expect to be very widely known or influential.

They can expect to be known to most people, if most people know most other people. They can expect to be influential, if they have a good idea that isn't yet known, and people are better at recognizing good ideas from their friends. They can expect to be respected as the leading expert in their natural specialty. Influence and significance are not actually conserved quantities.

You don't have to be alpha to achieve satisfaction in a community. Being a primate-style alpha comes with its own set of problems. Significance is one thing; it's another matter entirely to exercise social power strong enough that other people will heavily filter their communications to you.

Comment author: 17 December 2010 09:07:47AM *  3 points [-]

I'd like to see a study confirming that. The Internet is more addictive than television and I highly suspect it drains more life-force.

I highly suspect that the reason the internet is so much more addictive is the fact you can improve your status. And you don't have to wait for a group meeting, as you do for social groups IRL, because the group is always there.

Comment author: 27 April 2012 09:00:36AM *  2 points [-]

I highly suspect that the reason the internet is so much more addictive is the fact you can improve your status.

But improving your status on the internet takes a lot of time, and is very probably unconnected to the life outside of internet -- most useful things done in real life do not contribute to your internet status, and your internet status does not contribute to things done in real life. That's the problem: time and the disconnectedness. By improving your status in one world you lose your utility in the other world; improving your status tastes so sweet, but the rewards are very limited and can't be converted.

It goes against our insticts, because we expect that increasing status should bring many benefits, and on internet, it does not. (Just like our instincts expect that sugar goes with vitamins.) In real life, if you have a chance to become a king, go for it, because as a king, you will be able to better satisfy your needs that you have temporarily ignored in order to focus more on becoming a king. But as a king of internet, you have nothing... except the pure refined virtual status.

In theory, you can draw some real-life benefits from the virtual status, but I guess most people fail to do it. Because as a first step, you must get outside of the internet for long enough time to create a strategy for real life... but while you are doing it, your internet status is rapidly falling, and your instincts scream at you to come back and rescue it.

Comment author: 22 April 2016 06:30:07PM 1 point [-]

(Just like our instincts expect that sugar goes with vitamins.)

We have the instinct to consume sugar because it is the most concentrated form of energy that humans can process, not because it is naturally paired with vitamins.

Comment author: 22 April 2016 07:21:56PM *  3 points [-]

sugar ... is the most concentrated form of energy that humans can process

That's obviously false. Counterexample: fat.

Comment author: 23 April 2016 10:40:24AM *  0 points [-]

Fat does have more calories per gram than sugar, but I think sugar has more calories per cubic centimeter. (Not that I think that this one is the reason why it is more pleasurable to eat sugar than fat for most people.)

Comment author: 23 April 2016 06:40:34PM 0 points [-]

Sugar crystal is about 1.5 grams per ml, while human fat is about .9 grams per ml, but fat has more than twice the calories per gram.

Comment author: 24 April 2016 07:35:48AM *  1 point [-]

We have the instinct to consume sugar because it is the most concentrated form of energy that humans can process, not because it is naturally paired with vitamins.

Sugar is desirable as the most easily accessible form of energy. Being concentrated is more useful for long term storage in a mobile form, hence the use of the more concentrated fat.

Comment author: 31 December 2008 07:32:13PM -1 points [-]

Virtually everyone in today's world is influential in absolute terms, and should be respected for their unique contribution. The problem is those eager to be substantially influential in percentage terms.

Comment author: 31 December 2008 08:00:57PM 3 points [-]

Virtually everyone in today's world is influential in absolute terms, and should be respected for their unique contribution. The problem is those eager to be substantially influential in percentage terms.

Not sure what you refer to here - is it that we're alive at a time when there are only ~6 billion people in the whole universe? If people realized that and made it part of their identities - which is something I've occasionally advocated - then it might help on one score. But I'm not sure people would really respect each other on just that basis, if otherwise they're still doing the same sort of paperwork every day as 200 other people in a multinational corporation. And if you can't identify the mark that you're leaving on the universe, does it really help that much to know that you had some kind of effect you can't identify?

Obviously percentage influence is a zero-sum game, just like percentage wealth, but I'm not sure the underlying pie is of fixed size here.

Comment author: 31 December 2008 08:25:53PM 3 points [-]

"I'd like to see a study confirming that. The Internet is more addictive than television and I highly suspect it drains more life-force."

If you think that, why haven't you canceled your Internet access yet? :P I think anyone who finds it drains more than it gives back, is using it wrong. (Admittedly spending eight hours a day playing World of Warcraft does count as using it wrong.)

Comment author: 31 December 2008 08:26:04PM 0 points [-]

Even if Earth ends in a century, virtually everyone in today's world is absolutely influential. Even if 200 folks do the same sort of work in the same office, they don't do the exact same work, and usually that person wouldn't be there or be paid if no one thought their work made any difference. You can even now easily identify your mark, but it is usually tedious to trace it out, and few have the patience for it.

Comment author: 31 December 2008 08:45:44PM 0 points [-]

I think it bears repeating here:

Influence is only one aspect of the moral formula; the other aspect is the particular context of values being promoted.

These can be quite independent, as with a tribal chief, with substantial influence, acting to promote the perceived values of his tribe, vs. the chief acting to promote his narrower personal values. [Note that the difference is not one of fitness but of perceived morality. Fitness is assessed only indirectly within an open context.]

Comment author: 31 December 2008 11:51:50PM 0 points [-]

Can we have links to research on impact of television, Internet etc. on happiness etc.? This sounds interesting.

Comment author: 01 January 2009 02:56:57AM 2 points [-]

Can we have links to research on impact of television, Internet etc. on happiness etc.? This sounds interesting.

I'd be interested as well. I suspect the causality is mostly in the other direction, i.e. it's not that watching TV making you unhappy, but that happy people have better things to do than watch TV.

Comment author: 01 January 2009 05:32:12AM 3 points [-]

"Though it's a side issue, what's even more... interesting.... is the way that our brains simply haven't updated to their diminished power in a super-Dunbarian world. We just go on debating politics, feverishly applying our valuable brain time to finding better ways to run the world, with just the same fervent intensity that would be appropriate if we were in a small tribe where we could persuade people to change things."

Actually Eliezer, this is national indoctrination. In Costa Rica people spend MUCH less time discussing better ways to run the world. In Kazakhstan they would look at you like you were crazy if you spent ANY time doing so. Things just are the way they are and no-one can know what that way is. People aren't even interested in knowing what is legal or illegal etc.

Comment author: 01 January 2009 05:54:33AM 4 points [-]

"Even if 200 folks do the same sort of work in the same office, they don't do the exact same work, and usually that person wouldn't be there or be paid if no one thought their work made any difference."

Obviously Robin has never worked in a typical office environment. This is a GREAT example of the theoretical framework which he uses to model the world being grossly wrong and honestly is a great example of why no-one should be allowed a PhD in ANY social science without having spent at least 5 years in at least 3 different communities, jobs, and industries.

"I'd like to see a study confirming that. The Internet is more addictive than television and I highly suspect it drains more life-force."

On average, Americans spend far more hours watching TV than using the Internet. Obviously Eliezer's sample-set is severely biased when he makes causal statements about what's addictive. People who basically live on the internet will find that people THEY know are more addicted to internet than to TV.

Comment author: 01 January 2009 06:14:36AM 4 points [-]

Well... personally, I've observed the Internet to be far more addictive than TV; I've observed that in others as well (offline). I suppose you could argue that I don't meet the sort of person who would find TV more addictive than the Internet.

I also think you ought to spell out what sort of evidence you've personally observed that contradicts what part of Robin's statement, considering the overall vehemence of your reply. You've seen... people doing the exact same work? People being paid even though no one thinks their work makes any difference? How do you know?

Comment author: 01 January 2009 04:01:25PM 0 points [-]

Yeah Michael, what Eliezer said.

Comment author: 01 January 2009 05:09:29PM 2 points [-]

Well, they won't be doing numerically identical pieces of work. Are you thinking of things like patronage and nepotism positions that exist solely to hand money to their holders? An auto company employee who comes to 'work' and sits at a desk doing nothing from 9 to 5 in order to collect a paycheck, which is offered because of the UAW, isn't contributing anything to the company or the economy, but his enrichment makes a difference to the union leaders, since he will provide union dues and a vote. Many people are in this category, but the most blatant ones are still only a small fraction of the population.

If you start to include positions like government-subsidized social services jobs with nil or negative effects on recipients, people providing medicine that has nil or negative effect on health, people working in subsidized private industries (agriculture subsidies, etc) that destroy wealth on net, office politics positions, organized crime, legal versions of same (telemarketers selling bogus products or tricking people into signing harmful contracts), and similar categories you could wind up with a majority of the population in many countries. But if by 'making a difference to someone' Robin just means that an employer benefits from having the employee on staff, most such jobs wouldn't qualify.

Comment author: 01 January 2009 06:31:59PM 2 points [-]

"Recent studies have found that 2 to 12 percent of viewers see themselves as addicted to television: they feel unhappy watching as much as they do, yet seem powerless to stop themselves."

-- NY Times

"On average, people have 35 to 40 hours a week of discretionary time and spend about 21 hours near the tube. The [University of Maryland] study found that the happiest people estimated they tuned in to television 18.9 hours a week. For the least happy, it was nearly 25 hours a week.

The study, published in the December issue of the journal Social Indicators Research, is based on the General Social Survey, with public opinion data from nearly 40,000 people ages 18 to 64, as well as time-use diaries that detail how people spend their days.

The study controlled for differences in education, income, age, race, sex and marital status. On average, the down-and-out reported an extra 5.6 hours of tube time a week, compared with their happiest counterparts."

-- WaPo

"In the Stanford study — which Aboujaoude said is the first large-scale, random-sample epidemiological one ever done — the researchers conducted a nationwide household survey and interviewed 2,513 adults. Because no generally accepted screening instrument exists for problematic Internet use, the researchers developed their questions by extrapolating from other compulsive and addictive conditions. The researchers found that 68.9 percent were regular Internet users, which is consistent with previous studies, and that:

° 13.7 percent (more than one out of eight respondents) found it hard to stay away from the Internet for several days at a time. . . .Aboujaoude said he found most concerning the numbers of people who hid their nonessential Internet use or used the Internet to escape a negative mood, much in the same way that alcoholics might. “In a sense, they’re using the Internet to ‘self-medicate,’” he said."

So let's say maybe 12% for TV and 14% for the net. Close. They seem equally addicting - for the unhappy! - thus I'll say that there is just a certain percentage of people who are unhappy and use either the TV or the net to "self-medicate" their unhappiness. One is not more addictive than the other per se.

However it does seem as if there may be a niche for a cognitive therapeutical practice here!

Comment author: 06 January 2009 12:12:16AM 0 points [-]

There are two new articles related to group sizes at Life With Alacrity, and I'm working on a third that is about how participation inequality of large groups interacts with small group limits in a fashion to have similar problems happen on larger scales as groups change in size.

Comment author: 08 November 2010 04:27:30AM 4 points [-]

"Dunbar's Number" is also known as "The Monkeysphere"

The Monkeysphere is the group of people who each of us, using our monkeyish brains, are able to conceptualize as people. If the scientists are right, it's physically impossible for this to be a number much larger than 150.