Why Having Over 150 Friends on Social Media RUINS Your Life (Science Explained)

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A few months ago, I once again found myself struggling with balancing social media with having a productive, goal oriented life. I decided that I needed go deeper to understand the problem, so I made myself a nice cup of tea, sat in a chair, pulled out a notebook, checked my phone quickly for any urgent message, decided to take a quick trip over to Instagram, ok maybe that didn’t work out as planned, but when I regained consciousness 2 hours later, something profound did actually occur to me. 

How many people do I follow on social media that I haven’t interacted with in over a year, 2 years, a decade?

Why the fuck am I following someone who I met once, at a party that was 3 years ago, and only exchanged a few minutes of passing conversation with? 

How much of our social media consists of people that we don’t even really care about? 

And the much more difficult question, how much of our social media consists of people that we shouldn’t care about? 

So this got me thinking, is there an optimal number of people that we should follow or be friends with on social media? 

And as it turns out, there is, 150. So I got to work, Instagram is the only social network that I still use and so I made my way over to my “follows” list, took my virtual machete out and started chopping. 

It’s been a few months now since I did this,  and my close relationships have improved dramatically, my motivation and self-belief are at all-time highs, even my memory has improved. 

And when we look at the science and the psychology behind that seemingly magic number, 150, it all makes perfect sense. 

How our brain size limits how many friends we can have

Over the last few centuries, many scientists have studied the brain size and corresponding intelligence of different animals, from those studies emerged “social intelligence theory”, which shows that the bigger a species brain is, the more social that species is. Now here’s where this gets interesting. 

British anthropologist Robin Dunbar applied this theory within primate populations, and found that within different primate species, as the size of their brain increased, so too did that species maximum group size. 

Dunbar then collected this data and applied it to the average human brain size, and from this, he was able to calculate that 150 should be the maximum number of friends any human should have, any higher number being considered too complicated to handle under optimal processing levels.

Dunbar assessed whether values of 150 appeared within human societies with any kind of frequency, and what he found was incredible, tribal societies averaged 150 members, from Middle Eastern villages 6000 BC, England in 1068, to 11th century English villages, all averaged 150 people. Smaller military units, from Ancient Rome, through both world wars, to modern times, generally numbered close to 150 men.

Entrepreneurs like Robert Gore, the inventor of GoreTex, realized that once any of their factories exceeded 150 employees, they lost productivity and were less likely to work as a team.

Again and again and again, Dunbar found that the number 150 was linked to the maximum size of optimally functioning groups.

Recent studies have shown that people living in cities are 21% more likely to have anxiety disorders, and 39% more likely to have mood disorders compared to those living in rural areas.

In human history, these types of problems did not exist until we began to focus on larger societies, as a general rule, the denser the environments in which we live and work become, the sicker we become.

Now, add social media to the mix and all those stressors and pressures increase to absurd levels, which is why for many of us, social media feels so “overwhelming.”

Our brains are literally not evolved to be able to effectively manage large social groups with thousands of members.

HOW TO MAKE OUR SOCIAL NETWORK SMALLER, INCREASES MOTIVATION AND SELF-ESTEEM

Personally, one of the biggest negative impacts I began to experience while having an ever expanding social network, something that was wreaking havoc on my motivation levels, while making me feel less confident in my abilities, and generally less satisfied with my own life, was the fact that, every time I opened a social network, I was in essence competing with the carefully filtered digital projections of others, in what I refer to as “the social network hierarchy”.

This may sound cruel but it’s not, it’s just reality, everything in life is grouped within hierarchies, work is a hierarchy, with the manager at the top, and the janitorial staff at the bottom, school is a hierarchy, with the principal at the top, and the students at the bottom, students are a hierarchy, with the most popular students at the top and the least popular students at the bottom.

I know this because growing up, I was at the bottom of the hierarchy, but now I am at the top.

In any case, for us to feel motivated and want to climb the hierarchies in the first place, they must be optimized for two things.

First, they must be the right size – if they’re too small, well, who’s going to care? But if they’re too big, then it becomes too overwhelming. For most of us, our social networks are huge, they consist of not just hundreds but thousands of people to compete with, plus, those people are sharing success stories of even more people, and in essence, we are competing against all of them.

The second thing that hierarchies need for us to want to climb them is that they need to be flashy, we need to know What do we gain if we climb?

When we allow our social networks to accumulate not hundreds, but thousands of people we don’t talk to, and also don’t have things in common with, that place we’re trying to get to starts to become more confusing. We start to feel like we’re supposed to climb multiple and diverse hierarchies, which can make us feel doomed and not at all confident in ourselves.

But by reducing the number of people I follow down to 150, I really feel like I was able to create what is for me the “perfect” hierarchy in my social network. At the bottom of my hierarchy is my family, people I don’t compete with, and who matter to me and have a positive impact on my life, towards the middle are my friends, people who I “am” competing with, but in healthy ways and towards similar goals, at the top of my hierarchy are successful and high achieving people who I look up to and are my role models, and then at the very top is Elon Musk, basically, he is God.

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HOW TO OPTIMIZE THE HIERARCHY OF YOUR SOCIAL NETWORKS

Well, seriously speaking, reducing the number of followings to 150 was extremely difficult, something that really helped me in this was Dunbar’s 5-15-50-150 Model, which explains the different levels of relationship within the magic number 150.

Level 1: Close Friends. These are the people I know and can turn to during crises, people I talk to, or should talk to at least once a week.

Level 2: Good Friends. People in this layer are not as close as the first level of friends, but can move up a level under the right conditions.

Level 3: Friends. these are the people within my social circles who fit well with the type of person I am, people with whom I feel we share similar goals and paths.

Level 4: Significant Contacts. Basically these are all the other people within the 150, this includes close employees, people I have done business with or would like to do business with, and role models or people I admire, such as Elon Musk.

In this process, I had to remind myself that I didn’t need to worry so much about being nice, as I reduced my number to 150. The hardest part was to stop following a lot of people I grew up with and friends.

It’s been months since I made those changes and wow what a difference!

By reducing the size of my social network, I find it so much easier to remember things and conversations I have with people because there is so much less external stimulus, external noise, I also spent more time in my real world, developing real relationships with people I really care about.

Summary

Well folks, let’s do a quick recap before we drive this home.

Over time, social networks have become a desolate land of people with whom we do not interact or have things in common, the Dunbar number indicates that 150 is the maximum number of friends we can have while functioning at optimal levels, the more densely populated our environments become, the sicker we become, illnesses that did not exist when we lived in groups of 150 or less people.

Our social network is itself is a hierarchy and it is probably the hierarchy that has the most influence on our lives, as it becomes too large or too varied, we feel less motivated to scale it, because we feel overwhelmed.

By reducing our social network down to 150, we are going to bring it within the maximum range that we have evolved to give it optimal management, and we are likely to improve our lives dramatically.

And friends, please keep in mind, the whole point of sharing this is to show something that I have found works perfectly for me.

If you are someone who is extroverted, if you feel it is important for you to have a larger network, or perhaps, just as Dunbar observed in primates, you have a larger brain than I do and can handle a larger social network, then you probably should have a larger social network, you can and should experiment with what works best for you.

While you consider this, I leave you with this quote from Nietzsche, which is one of my favorites

"The individual has always struggled not to be absorbed into the tribe. If you try, you will often be alone, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high for the privilege of being yourself."

Friends, if you think I’m worth being in your social hierarchy, you can find me on Instagram @NelsonQuest.

And if you already follow me and think you should cut me from your hierarchy, please don’t, I promise I’ll share less pictures of my little dog Ro and more things of value.

And if you feel like you can benefit from my content, don’t just subscribe because subscriptions literally do nothing, make sure you also ring the damn little bell.

This is the way to go.

Good luck, and see you in the next post.

SOURCES

  • https://brightlemon.com/how-many-friends-do-you-really-need/
  • https://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/social-media-affect-math-dunbar-number-friendships
  • https://guilfordjournals.com/doi/pdf/10.1521/jscp.2018.37.10.751

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