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

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 took that data and applied it to the average human brain size and from that, he was able to calculate that 150 should be the maximum number of friends that any human should have, anything beyond that is considered to be too complicated to handle at optimal processing levels. 

Dunbar then set about looking to see if values of 150 appeared within human societies with any sort of regularity, and what he found was incredible, Tribal societies average around 150 members, average villages from the Middle East in 6000 B.C., to England in 1086, to English villages in the 11th century, all averaged about 150 people in size. The smallest fighting units within militaries, all the way from Ancient Rome, through both world wars,  to modern times, generally number about 150 men.

Entrepreneurs like Robert Gore, the inventor of the GoreTex, found that once any of his factories had more than 150 employees, they lost productivity and were less likely to work together as a team. 

Over and over and over again, Dunbar found number 150 linked to the maximum size of optimally functioning groups.

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

In the history of humanity, these sorts of problems didn’t even exist until we began to concentrate into larger societies, as a general rule, the more population dense our work and living environments become, the sicker we become.  

Now, add social media into the mix and all of these stressors and strains are increased to insane levels, this is why for so many of us, social media feels so, “overwhelming”.

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

How a smaller social network increases our motivation & self-belief

Now for me personally, one of the biggest negatives that I began to experience in having a continually expanding social network, something that was wreaking havoc on my motivation levels, while also making me feel less confident in my own abilities, and just less satisfied within my own life, was the fact that, every time I open up a social network, I’m essentially competing with the carefully curated digital projections of others, in what I like to refer to as “the social network hierarchy”.

That may sound ruthless, but it’s not. It’s just reality, everything in life is grouped into hierarchies, work is a hierarchy, with the CEO being at the top, and the cleaning people at the bottom, school is a hierarchy, with the principal at the top, and students at the bottom, students are a hierarchy, with the most popular students at the top, and least popular students at the bottom. 

I would know because growing up, I was at the very bottom of that hierarchy, but now I’m at the top, right babe? 

Anyway, in order for us to feel motivation and want to climb hierarchies in the first place, they need to be optimized for two things. 

First, they need to be the right size, if they’re too small, well then who really cares? But if they’re too big, then they become too overwhelming. For most of us, our social networks are enormous, not only do they consist of hundreds if not thousands of people that we’re competing against, but then those people are often sharing the stories and successes of even more people, and we’re essentially competing with all of them.

The second thing that hierarchies need for us to want to climb them, they need to be compelling , what do we get out of climbing them? 

When we allow our social networks to accumulate hundreds, if not thousands of people that we no longer talk to, let alone have anything in common with, that place that we’re trying to get to, starts to get a lot more confusing. We can start to feel like we’re supposed to climb lots of different hierarchies, which can make us feel hopeless and less confident in ourselves.

But cutting down the number of people I follow down to 150, I really feel like I was able to create a “perfect” social network hierarchy for myself. At the base of my hierarchy are family, people I’m not competing with, but who I care about and have a positive impact in my life, towards the middle are my friends, people who I “am” competing with, but in healthy ways and towards similar goals, and at the top of my hierarchy are high achievers and successful people whom I both admire and aspire towards, then at the very tippy top, is Elon Musk, he is basically a God. 

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How to optimize your own social media hierarchy

Ok, in all seriousness, cutting down my number of follows to 150 was extremely difficult, something that really helped me here was Dunbar’s 5-15-50-150 model, which breaks down the different levels of relationships within that magical 150 number.

Layer 1:  Very Close Friends. These are the people I know I can turn to in a crisis, people who I talk to, or at least should be talking to at least once a week. 

Layer 2: Good Friends. The people in this layer aren’t as close to me as my layer 1 friends, but they could easily enter that layer with the right conditions.

Layer 3: Friends. These are people within my social circles who I also feel align nicely with who I am as a person, people with whom I feel are on a similar path and share similar goals. 

Level 4: Meaningful contacts. So this is basically everyone else within my 150 number, this includes employees that I have closer relationships with, people I’ve done business with or would like to do business with, and role models or people that I admire, like Elon Musk. 

Something I had to keep constantly reminding myself was to stop worrying about as I cut my number down to 150, was to stop trying to be so nice, by far the hardest part of this was unfollowing lots of people that I grew up with. 

It’s been months now since I made these changes and wow, what a difference!

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

Summary

Alright guys, let’s do a quick summary here before we bring everything home. 

Over time, social media becomes a massive wasteland of people we no longer interact with or even have anything in common with, according to Dunbar’s Number, 150 is the maximum number of friends we can have while still operating at optimal levels, the more densely populated our environments become, the sicker we become, sicknesses that didn’t exist when we lived in groups of 150 people or less. 

Our Social Network is itself a hierarchy, and it’s probably the one that has the most influence within our lives, when it becomes too large or too varied, we feel less motivation to climb it because we feel overwhelmed by it. 

By reducing our social network down to 150, we can bring it within the maximal range that we are evolved to optimally handle, and probably dramatically improve our lives. 

Now guys, please keep in mind, my whole point in sharing this video is to show something that I’ve found works amazingly for me. 

If you’re more of an extrovert, if you feel like it’s important for you to have a bigger network, or maybe, just as Dunbar observed with primates, you’ve got a bigger brain than me and can handle a bigger social network, then you probably should have a bigger network, and you can and should experiment with what works best for you. 

As you consider what size is optimal for you, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Nietzsche

“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”

Guys, if you think I’m worthy of being in  your social hierarchy, you can find me on instagram @NelsonQuest.

This is the path.

Good luck, and I’ll see you in the next video. 

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