Why We Need Help Helping

The internet is a mess. Empathy is commoditized. And awareness of systemic change hasn’t changed our systems.

In our readings for Quarter 4 Theory class, we’ve discussed the above topics, and we are closer to articulating how design can impact our world for the better. Part of that realization is knowing our limits as designers, but also as humans, primates, with limited cognitive capacity.

This friendly Brit can help us understand these limits.

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Dr. Robin Dunbar. Professor Emeritus of Evolutionary Psychology at Oxford. He recommends your wedding be less than 150 guests.

One limit is 150. Give or take. 150 is the cognitive limit on the number of individuals we can have a relationship with at a given moment. This is the key limit proposed by Dr. Robin Dunbar, who is one of the few academics famous for an inexact number, Your actual number may be 123, or 205, but whatever the exact amount, these are the folks you’d choose invite to a big party.

The number has historical weight- this 150-ish range correlates with the size of Neolithic villages (6500 BC); the size of a modern Army company, and the typical size of a department within a large organization.

The Dunbar number is actually 3-4 tiers of numbers, starting with your closest friends and family (averaging 5 people) and moving outward. As you move outward into an “extended network” of people (acquaintances); numbers of people increase. In the outer circles, these are people you’d recognize, perhaps even forget some names, but generally have a sense of who they are, and their relationship with you.

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The 4 overlapping regions of Dunbar’s number.

Dunbar notes that we spend nearly 75% of our time with our nearest two circles of people. Compare that 20 or so people closest to you with the fact that there are 7.5 billion people alive on planet Earth, and our warm feelings of humanity can feel pretty insignificant in the big picture.

Hence the problems with empathy, giving, and charity. Our brains and society lack the capacity to have meaningful relationship about all the underprivileged, poverty-stricken, or under-educated people in the world. As much as we’d like to help, the numbers don’t just feel daunting, they are.

As designers, what Dunbar shows us is that we should utilize these limitations to push for systemic change in wicked problems. It shows us how we’re paralyzed by huge numbers and crave tangible, visual, human stories, which are often used in design research.

I don’t yet know how these limits can lead to the design of services that promote systemic change, but it does show why systemic change feels so elusive.