649: The number of Facebook friends a typical college student had in 2014.1  We all know very well that we don’t interact with all 649 (or more!) of these friends we have on social media.  Combined with other forms, such as Twitter or Instagram, a person can easily have more than a thousand social contacts.

It turns out more is not merrier when it comes to these casual social contacts.  According to a study done by Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary anthropology at the University of Oxford, your brain can only handle a maximum social circle of 150 people.4 150 is the accepted number, but it varies from 100-200 depending on how social the person is.3 This number is limited by the neocortex in the brain.  Dunbar stumbled upon his discovery while researching the relationship between the size of monkey and ape brains, compared to their social behaviors.6

Analyzing this data and comparing it to the human brain size, he found 150 to be the magic number.  A number beyond this is not optimal and can cause stress and anxiety.

Another study from the University of Edinburgh Business School supports Dunbar’s findings.  This study reported that more friends on social media equates to more stress.5 Having many circles intertwine on Facebook, from family to work to college, may cause anxiety, because your different “worlds” are essentially colliding.  You may find yourself worrying about offending others with your different aspects of life on social media.  

Dunbar’s research also shows that we can only maintain intimate, close relationships with 3-5 people.2   This type of friend differs from a “casual contact”, as this means you see these closer friends day to day.  These friends are your confidants and best friends.  Although a person could have thousands of friends on Facebook, there is really not a difference between them or a person with 200.  

#nonewfriends may hold some truth, after all.

Dana Smith is a sophomore from Wiess College at Rice University.


  1. Average number of friends of U.S. Facebook users 2014 | Statistic. Statista, http://www.statista.com/statistics/232499/americans-who-use-social-networking-sites-several-times-per-day/ (accessed 2015).

  2. Konnikova, M. The Limits of Friendship. The New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/social-media-affect-math-dunbar-number-friendships (accessed 2015).

  3. Lewis, T. How Many Friends Can Your Brain Handle? Scientific American, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-many-friends-can-your-brain-handle/ (accessed 2015).

  4. Loveys, K. 5,000 friends on Facebook? Scientists prove 150 is the most we can cope with. Daily Mail, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1245684/5-000-friends-facebook-scientists-prove-150-cope-with.html (accessed 2015).

  5. More Facebook friends means more stress. More Facebook friends means more stress, http://www.business-school.ed.ac.uk/about/news-and-press/more-facebook-friends-means-more-stress,-says-business-school-report?a=51582 (accessed 2015).

  6. You Asked: How Many Friends Do I Need? Time, http://time.com/3748090/friends-social-health/ (accessed 2015).