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Robin Dunbar  

Anthropologist, Evolutionary Psychologist & Author

Robin Dunbar is a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist and a specialist in primate behavior. He is the head of the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford. He is best known for formulating Dunbar's number, a measurement of the "cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships".

His research is concerned with trying to understand the behavioral, cognitive and neuroendocrinological mechanisms that underpin social bonding in primates (in general) and humans (in particular). Understanding these mechanisms, and the functions that relationships serve, will give us insights how humans have managed to create large scale societies using a form of psychological that is evolutionarily adapted to very small scale societies, and why these mechanisms are less than perfect in the modern world. This has implications for the design of social networking sites as well as mobile technology. To study social bonding, Dunbar uses conventional behavioral and cognitive experimental approaches, combined with network analysis, agent based modelling, comparative studies of primate brain evolution, neuroimaging and neuroendocrinology to explore explicit and implicit processes at both the dyadic and the group level.

In 2015, Dunbar was awarded the Huxley Memorial Medal, established in 1900 in memory of Thomas Henry Huxley, for services to anthropology by the Council of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, the highest honor at the disposal of the RAI. Dunbar is also a Humanists UK Distinguished Supporter of Humanism.

Dunbar received his education at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he completed his Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Philosophy in 1969. Dunbar then went on to the Department of Psychology of the University of Bristol and completed his PhD in 1974 on the social organization of the gelada, Theropithecus gelada, a monkey that is a close relative to baboons. In 1994, Dunbar became Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at University of Liverpool, but he left Liverpool in 2007 to take up the post of Director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford.


You Can Only Maintain So Many Close Friendships

The evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar explains the limits on how many connections humans can keep up, and the trade-offs involved when you invest in a new relationship.

The Limits of Friendship

Robin Dunbar came up with his eponymous number almost by accident. The University of Oxford anthropologist and psychologist (then at University College London) was trying to solve the problem of why primates devote so much time and effort to grooming. In the process of figuring out the solution, he chanced upon a potentially far more intriguing application for his research.

Dunbar's number: Why we can only maintain 150 relationships

The theory of Dunbar’s number holds that we can only really maintain about 150 connections at once. But is the rule true in today’s world of social media?

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