On Dunbar’s number, intentionality and @eleanorcatton’s The Luminaries

I went to see Professor Robin Dunbar (yes, he of Dunbar’s number fame) speak at the RSA last week.

He mentioned how humans use about 20% of our time in social interaction, which gets more difficult with increased levels of intentionality – a ‘reflexively hierarchical sequence of belief states.’ For example: Peter thinks about apples – first level of intentionality. Anne thinks about Peter thinking about apples – second level. Jen thinks of Anne thinking about Peter who is thinking about apples – third level, and so on. Dunbar’s theory, as he mentioned it last week, was that the better you are at juggling intentionality, the more friends you can have; typically the maximum for humans is the fifth level of intentionality because even getting to that point is very costly in information processing terms. Hence, he postulates, the maximum number of people we can have meaningful relationships with as primates is about 150 – Dunbar’s number.


(I found an old presentation of his that covered a lot of the same ground as last week – it’s here, if you’re interested).

Anyway, what Professor Dunbar was saying resonated particularly with me because I was in the process of reading Eleanor Catton’s 2013 Booker Prize-winning tome ‘The Luminaries’. I finished it just yesterday, and recalled what Professor Dunbar said about intentionality and story. He said that very few people can write a good story because it would need 5 or more levels of intentionality to be properly compelling – one of whom, in my humble opinion, is definitely Ms. Catton.

Writing a well-researched work of fiction is hard, and Catton wholly deserved the Booker not only because of its size and detail (it was incredibly long, at over 800 pages), but the way the story was structured. There were so many characters flipping back and forth, constantly replaying in their own minds the given sequence of events as they tried to figure the mystery out for themselves, that it forced me to make sure I had the facts down right myself as I read it. And it wasn’t easy.

As a side note, no wonder that I don’t have much patience for a friend of a friend of a friend who makes that Facebook or LinkedIn request. They get into more levels of intentionality than I care for.

The RSA has put up a podcast of last week’s talk if you’d like a listen:

2 thoughts on “On Dunbar’s number, intentionality and @eleanorcatton’s The Luminaries

  1. Y’know it’s interesting. I was thinking about this in a slightly different context last week. The more levels of intentionality you expect me to engage with, the more interesting or low-load your request needs to be. Say you’re a friend, and you want me to review a resume or piece of writing – happy to. Say you’re the cousin of a friend of my acquaintance – I don’t mind giving you a quick answer to a question, but the threshold for anything more than that rises with distance.

    • Hey! Yes that’s totally true. Six degrees of separation working in a different way.

      Thanks for the comment!

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