Q&A with Professor Robin Dunbar

In this seminar-style podcast, evolutionary psychologist Professor Robin Dunbar answers your questions about Dunbar’s Number and his research on social bonding, specifically his books:

Friends: Understanding the Power of our Most Important Relationships

How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures

You can find the time markers for each question below.

Listen to this episode using the audio player above or by podcast via iTunes or Stitcher or Spotify (or search for “Wide Open Air Exchange” on your preferred podcast platform).

A version of this Q&A was first broadcast on the radio by 2SER 107.3FM

Here are links to other resources referred to in this episode:

Short online piece, ‘Robin Dunbar Explains Why His ‘Number’ Still Counts’

Accessible journal article, ‘Religion, the social brain and the mystical stance’

Transcript of Robin Dunbar on the Wide Open Air Exchange in 2017

Biographical chat with Robin Dunbar on the Wide Open Air Exchange in 2022

Discord group for the Wide Open Air Exchange

Nicholas Graham’s review of How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures

Approximate time markers for this episode:

00:00–03:30  Introduction.

03:24–06:33 Christine’s summary of Dunbar’s Number and friendship layers.

06:30–07:42  Connecting with Robin Dunbar via video call.

07:42–10:40 Question: Can you count your friend’s family unit as taking up only one place in your friendship circles because when you see their family it’s to service the friendship with your friend not their partner or child?

10:40–15:06 Question: What would you advise for someone who has moved overseas—should you wean off maintaining old friendships online and make room for new friends in person?

15:06–19:40 Question: For teachers who have relationships with children and teachers at school, would this take up room in their 150 or do professional relationships not take the place of your 150 social relationships?

19:40–25:45 Question: Do celebrity obsessions take up space in the 150 and are there equivalents in earlier societies of ephemeral “human-like” interactions or archetypes?

25:45–29:38 Question: Could the memorialisation of dead celebrities be taking up space in your friendship layers?

29:38–37:10 Question: Is it possible to change the way we distribute the time we spend on maintaining relationships and spend more on the outer edges of our social networks, or are we hard wired to dedicate the most time to our closest ties?

37:10–41:59 Question: Since we can now maintain more relationships on social media, does the work on the size of friendship layers still apply? And, if so, could you see that changing as social media becomes more prevalent in the way we interact with each other?

41:59–44:10 Christine’s summary of the seven pillars of friendship reading from Robin Dunbar’s Friends book.

44:10–52:55 Question: How was it determined that the pillars of friendship are substitutable and might that depend on the missing pillars not being relevant to your friendship? Might any of the missing pillars be a condition for a fracture in a friendship?

52:54–1:00:18 Christine’s summary of ‘synchrony’, ‘mentalising’ and ‘mystical stance’ referencing Robin Dunbar’s books Friends and How Religion Evolved.

1:00:18–1:06:31 Question: Is the trance-like state from scrolling on social media and the high level mentalising happening in reaction videos on social media relevant to Professor Dunbar’s work on religion?

1:06:31–1:13:34 Question: What might be the future development of religion in an age of climate change and mass extinction?

1:13:34–1:16:00 Question: Refers to John Geiger’s description of the “phantom other”—a presence experienced by mountaineers and polar explorers in extreme privation—and asks could this be another expression of the mystical stance?

1:16:00–1:20:03 Question: If the human neurology that underlies the mystical stance could be mimicked in an artificial neural network, could it be possible for AI’s to experience religion? And what might it mean for the test to distinguish humans from machines originally proposed by Alan Turing?

1:20:03–1:29:09 Discussion of the potential for AI developments in friendship maintenance, like an app that could analyse your friendship layers and chatbot assistants doing online friendship maintenance for you. Refers to a chat in the Discord group of the Wide Open Air Exchange.

1:29:09–1:36:36 Question: As the mystical stance can be experienced through things like mind altering drugs at a dance party (which also has the synchrony element)—and the things that make religion endure are related to the social—is it actually religion that is enduring or really just a setting for the transcendental experiences and social connection?

1:36:36–1:44:08 Sharing brief personal reflections on religion.

1:44:08–1:53:15 Question: Is your work affected by the replication crisis?

1:53:15–1:56:31 Question: In your Friends book, you talked about approaching technology and video game companies to possibly do studies with their cooperation on online networks of gaming friends. How did that process go, and were gaming companies cagey with their data?

1:56:31–1:58:16 Question: What, if anything, has most surprised Robin Dunbar about his research?

1:58:37–2:00:09 Final remarks and reflections.

2:01:30–2:03:13 Outtake: Robin Dunbar answers a joke question from 2SER Breakfast host Danny Chifley — What’s it like working with Batman?

Thanks to everyone who contributed to the Q&A, and thanks again to Professor Dunbar for his generous responses.

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