The theory that we can only hold a finite number of stable social relationships has long been debated.
That number, estimated to be 150 by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, has created a widespread belief that the brain has a cognitive limit to the size of social groups it maintains.
Is there a cognitive limit to the number of connections we can navigate?
It’s a question that’s inherently complicated, looking at human brain physiology and human evolution (and we haven’t even gotten to the practical implications of technology and digital social networks).
Technology could mean that maintaining stable relationships is easier than ever. Or, the tsunami of networking potential could tip the scales in the other direction. Let’s analyze how Dunbar’s number stacks up in the modern era.
What is Dunbar’s number?
Why Dunbar’s Number Matters
Can we beat Dunbar’s number?
How to Network on Social Media
How to Maintain Your Network
What is Dunbar’s number?
Dunbar’s number, theorized by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, is the number of stable social relationships a person can maintain simultaneously. He believed the maximum number is 150, which is why this is sometimes called the “Rule of 150.”
“The core of Dunbar’s number still holds an essential truth: the value of deep and meaningful connections,” shared Lachlan Brown, an expert in behavioral psychology.
So, how can a deeper understanding of psychological limits help us foster more profound and meaningful relationships?
Why Dunbar’s Number Matters
While learning that there’s a cap on our relationships may not feel inherently positive, there’s a benefit to understanding our limits.
Managing your network starts with having realistic expectations. This makes nurturing and growing your network less intimidating and, ultimately, more successful.
While it’s the goal, a practical understanding of your network is not as easy to achieve as it might sound.
“I’ve interviewed and taken data points on networking from thousands of people. I’ve come to realize that most people have a false sense of their networks,” said Adam Connors, founder of NetWorkWise.
“Some feel that the 1,100 people they are connected with on Facebook or LinkedIn are their networks, and they are well networked or connected. On the other hand, you have others who don’t think they know many people at all. The truth is, it’s really somewhere in between, especially when you start getting more granular with your Spheres of Influence.”
Understanding Dunbar’s number and the different layers of your sphere of influence helps you set realistic expectations and successfully prioritize the vast relationships within your network.
Prioritizing relationships might have an unsavory tone, like secretly having a favorite child, but it’s a natural and rational way to view the varied people within your network.
“I find Dunbar’s number logical. The importance of close social circles has been recognized for decades,” said Dr. Alexander Lapa, a psychiatrist from Rehab Guide. But conversely, there are benefits to having an extensive network as well.
Dr. Lapa explained that the theory states that there are social layers, and each has different limits, which he says can resemble a pattern like this.
- Loved ones: 5 people
- Close friends: 15 people
- Friends: 50 people
- Meaningful contact: 150 people
- Acquaintances: 500 people
- People you recognize: 1,500 people
Understanding apparent differences between the layers of your network can help you correctly allocate the right amount of energy to fuel those ongoing relationships.
In networking, it’s essential to know that the appropriate amount of energy required from your inner circle is not the same as your professional contacts.
This can be a comfort for managing scores of colleagues, clients, team members, and customers.
“Remember that networking connections don’t require the same attention as personal relationships,” said Lily Zay, marketer at HiHello, advises.
She shared these techniques for maintaining professional relationships while managing your energy output:
- Reach out to connections at an interval that works for you, such as once a quarter or twice a year.
- Don’t be afraid to be opportunistic when a touchpoint presents itself.
- Take advantage of commenting on their LinkedIn posts or sending an article relevant to them.
“Using tactics like this helps maintain a relationship with a lower lift on your part so that you can keep up with even more connections.”
With all of these tips for understanding and leveraging our large networks, it begs the question: Can we beat Dunbar’s number?
Can we beat Dunbar’s number?
Some people can beat Dunbar’s number, but not everyone can.
“It is possible to have more than 150 contacts, but not all of them will be meaningful or close relationships,” shared Dr. Ketan Parmar, a psychiatrist and mental health expert.
“To beat Dunbar’s number, one would have to invest more time and effort in maintaining and strengthening the bonds with each person, which may not be feasible or desirable for everyone.”
It’s a tall task, but do people still try? Of course.
Psychology expert Bayu Prihandito worked with a client who seemed to have beaten Dunbar’s number.
He shared that the client seemed to juggle connections beyond 150, but upon closer inspection, the depth of these relationships greatly varied.
As it turns out, the varying depth can benefit you when pursuing professional relationships.
“In a professional environment, we often engage in relationships that are defined by specific goals or shared interests rather than deep emotional connections,” said Lachlan Brown. “These relationships could theoretically extend beyond Dunbar’s number because they don’t require the same cognitive load as personal connections.”
So, where do you build these professional relationships? There’s no better place than LinkedIn.
How to Network on Social Media
Different platforms are oriented to different types of content. YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok favor visual content, which has a learning curve. Facebook is too casual for many professions.
LinkedIn is historically a professional networking platform with enormous depth and opportunity beyond being a digital resume.
The benefit of LinkedIn is everyone has a shared goal: Everyone wants to grow their professional networks, whereas, on other platforms, some users are oriented towards just follower growth or influencer marketing.
The following networking tips can be applied to any platform, but they’ll be geared towards LinkedIn as it’s the favored platform for building a professional network.
Ready to move from an observer (or a lurker, as they’re called in the social media sphere) to a networker? Here’s how to start.
1. Post content.
Posting content is the foundation of building your network on social media.
What do you get out of posting content on social media? People get to know you, understand your expertise, remember you, and engage with your content. Social media is a stage, and posting is how you stand up and take the mic.
It’s doubtful that one of your professional contacts will think of you today and send you an email out of the blue. But post on LinkedIn, and that same contact will see it, like your post, leave a comment, or send you a direct message (DM).
Not sure what to post on social media? Try these posts on LinkedIn this week:
- Ask for advice.
- Share a recent win.
- Parse industry news.
- Analyze a recent loss.
- Detail a current lesson learned.
- Start a controversial but harmless debate.
Here’s an example from my personal LinkedIn account. A post on my feed about whether or not animals made remote work better or worse sparked comments, dialogue, DMs, and mentions for days:
2. Offer real value and connection.
While it may feel vulnerable to suddenly start posting on social media, your current connections (and future connections) will be happy to see your face on their feed when you have a value-first presentation.
The secret lies in not treating social media like a megaphone and blasting your contacts with your messaging or sales offers.
Here are some do’s and don’ts as you begin to network on social media:
Do share your job title
Don’t pitch your services
Do comment on posts from people you don’t know
Don’t leave short, generic comments like “great perspective.”
Do learn by watching what kind of content is performing well on the platform
Don’t join trends or conversations that you can’t add value to
Do create goals for posting and stick to it
Don’t post at 11 p.m. just to check the box for the day
Do introduce yourself to people you don’t know
Don’t reach out to just anyone; find common ground
Here’s a template that you can use to reach out to new connections on LinkedIn:
Hey [NAME]! 🙂 I’m currently trying to learn more about [THEIR NICHE TOPIC], and I came across your account. I’m a [YOUR TITLE] and would love to connect and learn from you.
Show goodwill and pursue symbiotic relationships, and you will slowly but steadily see your network expand on LinkedIn.
3. Post in private and public.
When you can choose between posting a public message seen by potentially thousands of people and sending a private message that may only be seen by one person, it can feel like there’s low ROI on posting privately.
In reality, social media networking takes place both privately and publicly. They’re both necessary due to their unique benefits.
“Engaging in conversations in private groups feels like being part of a secret society where everyone genuinely wants to share knowledge and help each other,” said Thomas Codevilla, business attorney and co-founder of SK&S Law Group.
“By participating actively, I’ve established myself as a credible and approachable member. Sharing insights, asking thoughtful questions, and joining discussions with enthusiasm has helped me form connections that go beyond the surface level.”
Private posting can take place in:
- The DMs on any social platform.
- Private paid communities.
- Facebook groups.
- Slack channels.
4. Don’t be generic (or a robot).
Generic emails, comments, and connection requests waste everyone’s time. Regarding networking, AI is probably wasting your time, too.
While ChatGPT extensions exist for networking purposes, they will do more harm than good to your networking efforts. Why? No one wants to learn AI has catfished them.
Imagine that you’ve been interacting with someone on LinkedIn for a few weeks, and they ask you to hop on a 30-minute video call to chat (called a coffee chat).
While talking, you bring up past conversations that you’ve had with this person in the comments on their posts, your posts, and your DMs.
But they have no memory of it because they were using AI—relationship time of death.
On the other hand, while generic communication written by you isn’t deceitful, it’s just a dead end. Don’t low-ball or overcomplicate your networking. You don’t need AI, an online course, or a coach to figure it out for yourself.
Maintaining genuine relationships can be as simple as checking in on meaningful dates like birthdays, specific milestones, or anniversaries. “Check in on them and show that you care,” said Adam Connors.
“Building and developing relationships is actually very simple, very inexpensive, but VERY important and will show up in all facets of your life from the boardroom to the bedroom.”
5. Look for diverse connections.
Filling up your network with only people you perceive as potential clients or customers is a mistake.
Instead, connect on a human level, based on:
- Having children the same age.
- Similar geographic location.
- Favorite travel destination.
- Shared interests.
This is important for two reasons. The first is that you never know where your next job offer, client, or referral will come from.
Serendipitous connections happen daily online, and the opportunities are often completely unpredictable. You could never predict which connections will be conductors for introductions or unforeseen opportunities.
Secondly and more importantly, you’ll have more rewarding relationships when they’re rooted in genuine enjoyment. Finding real common ground with other people turns contacts into friends.
A strong network is diverse, spanning across different industries and interests.
6. Be consistent and persistent.
Building a network isn’t done immediately. Reflect on your last job and remember how many casual interactions it took with colleagues for people to transform from names and faces to friendly professional relationships.
Networking in the online space can feel even lonelier. You’d be hard-pressed to find a colleague who just walks away from a one-on-one conversation without saying a word, but you’ll experience it often in online networking.
“80% of people will ignore you. Don’t let that get to you,” said Nicolas Garfinkel, founder of Mindful Conversion. “People are overloaded with connections, and many people don’t want to network. That’s okay. Just keep putting in the time, and good things will happen.”
Consider setting goals for:
- How much time you spend engaging per day with your network
- Network growth (connection and follower count on LinkedIn).
- The number of conversations you manage to move off-platform (coffee chats).
How to Maintain Your Network
Put your newfound understanding of networking on social media into action with these tips.
1. Create a schedule.
Consistency isn’t something that accidentally happens on its own; it requires a schedule.
“Plan time each week to focus on creating and maintaining connections,” Lily Zay advises. “Keeping up with networking connections consistently helps maintain a larger network without leaving you scrambling to reach out to hundreds of people at once.”
If you’re not sure where to start, try this schedule. For 15 minutes each morning:
- Engage with your current connections on LinkedIn. Respond to DMs and comments on your posts. Leave new comments on posts that are in your feed.
- Grow your network. Comment on posts from people you don’t know, send them thoughtful connection requests, and engage with new people online.
Maintain this schedule even on the weekends. LinkedIn is still an extremely active place on Saturday and Sunday (search the hashtag #SocialSaturday, and you’ll be blown away).
It’s even easier to have conversations when the platform is less crowded. Plus, your connections’ notifications aren’t as busy.
2. Explore different channels.
While we’re looking a lot at LinkedIn, networking and relationships can be found on several platforms. Each platform often comes with different benefits:
- LinkedIn, ease, mutual goals.
- Slack, specific audience.
- TikTok, timeliness.
- Email, long-form communications, accessibility.
- Facebook groups, specific audience.
- Voxer, conversational nature.
If you have multifaceted relationships, consider giving each appendage of your relationship a specific platform. For example, two friends collaborating on consulting work can keep their professional communications limited to only email.
3. Segment your network.
Instead of seeing your network as one whole unit group of 150 people, segment groups and create a hierarchy.
“I categorize my network into various groups,” said Jessie van Breugel, LinkedIn inbound specialist. “Segmenting my network allows me to allocate my time and resources more efficiently.”
Jessie segments his networking into these three groups:
- Inner circle, close peers, mentors, and partners.
- Professional acquaintances, people he’s worked with or met at events but doesn’t communicate with regularly.
- Casual contacts, those he’s met briefly or knows of but hasn’t established a deep connection with.
Understanding these layers of your 150 connections can make relationship maintenance more realistic.
4. Get organized.
Just as commitment doesn’t happen independently, organization is also not an accident.
Consider using popular tools to stay organized around your networking efforts:
- Client relationship management (CRM) software.
- Productivity tools like Notion and Trello.
Track goals, essential contacts, and your progress toward those goals. These goals can be non-transactional, such as having 10 coffee chats per month, or they can be measurable, such as signing one new client through LinkedIn.
Other goal outcomes may be longer-term, which makes organization even more important. If you’re pursuing a relationship for a specific reason, identify your goal and track your progress toward building that relationship.
For example, a writer trying to get a book deal with Penguin Random House may try to connect with editors on LinkedIn and build relationships for six months before bringing up the topic of their own book.
Staying organized around your goals for your networking efforts will help improve your odds of reaching them.
5. Meet in groups.
While most networking takes place one-on-one, there’s also huge value in contact groups.
“As you grow your career, your network gets larger — to not lose the personal touch, it comes down to how you manage your time,” said Joshua Host, founder of Thrivelab, who oversees 100+ team members.
“For example, business owners can schedule meetings with specific departments, and entrepreneurs can massage business connections by grouping contacts into a call who are involved in the same venture.”
A hidden benefit of grouping in the networking space is the authority building. Six months into your networking efforts, schedule a few calls tying together related professionals who may have overlapping interests or personalities.
This makes you a conductor for introductions and an extremely valuable person for anyone else to have in their network.
6. Manage your time, and you’ll manage your relationships.
With emails, messages, video calls, and notifications always in the palm of our hands, it’s easy to get swept downstream in the excitement and forgo boundaries with your extended network.
It turns out it’s to our detriment.
“My best tip to anyone looking to get ‘out of the work zone’ and focus on their relationships is to limit your work hours. And stick to that,” shared Jasmin (Jay) Alić, who has been ranked as the top creator on LinkedIn.
After growing his network on LinkedIn to more than 100,000 followers, Jay shared this advice for building your network: “If you can find 2-3 hours in your day and make that your work-free zone every single day, you can keep any relationship going.”
Grow Your Network
Have you been inspired to grow your network today? Let any nervousness, uncertainty, or lack of urgency be wiped out by Adam Connors’ words:
“There is no better investment than in your friendship 401K. You will get a massive ROR (return on relationships). The compound interest is incalculable.”
Don’t get too wrapped up in the number of friends or contacts you have; focus on the quality, and you (and your career) will feel the impact.