Ramona Singer, of the former Real Housewives of New York, claimed she had 50 close girlfriends. And the reality star wasn’t speaking in hyperbole. She had literally counted…one…two…50 dear girlfriends. She’d say this fact so often that other housewives would roll their eyes. And yet, at her 63rd birthday party in the back room of Scarpetta, a Ramona (the scientific name for a group of white women above 14th Street) showed up to celebrate their friend. They even presented their host with a Chanel handbag, which, divided by 50 friends, comes out to something like $200 per friend. Maybe she really did have 50 close friends.
But, c’mon. Who actually has 50 close friends? The scale alone in keeping track of birthdays (a bare minimum of friendship) would take up a good portion of your year and finances. Zero friends is certainly too few. But 50? Too high. So, what’s the perfect number of friends?
For British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, this question isn’t a rhetorical exercise, but the focus of his life’s work. The scientist’s social brain hypothesis argues that there is a precise ceiling to the number of stable relationships people can comfortably maintain. Known as “Dunbar’s Number,” 150 is the tippy top limit—five being close loved ones, 15 being good friends, 50 being friends and so on. In other words, Dunbar explains, there are at most 150 people in your life that if you saw them at a random airport in some far-flung locale, you would unequivocally be able to go up to them and say “hi”. (No, your 2,034 Facebook “friends” do not count.)
One of the most significant factors limiting our social lives is our brains (or, one could say the human brain is unique in how it allows for so many deep relationships). It’s a cognitive challenge to keep track of more people. It’s also a time-budgeting problem—you have to invest in relationships, and the amount you invest seems to be proportional to the quality of your relationship. There’s absolutely no way Ramona Singer could have the time to send flowers to Christine after her knee surgery, check in with Arlene about gala ticket sales, be the emotional support blanket Elyse needs, remind Alyse (with an A) of Nicole’s birthday, send Andrea the name of the plumber, congratulate Carol on her daughter’s graduation, shit-talk all day on a thread with Pamela, Missy, Liz and Colleen—and that’s only one-fifth of Ramona’s Rolodex. By Dunbar’s hypothesis, Ramona’s claim is physically—and neuropsychologically—impossible.