Monday, October 09, 2006

Dunbar Number Equals Zero

I posted about Dunbar's Number and the monkeysphere (or ape ball as Dianne likes to call it). Dunbar's theory says the size of the neocortex and it's processing capability limits the number of stable relationships a person can maintain. Since the roots of his theory come from observations of non-human primates, it's sometimes referred to as the monkeysphere. Folks outside of the monkeysphere may be ignored or even treated harshly – as observed with groups of monkeys. On a couple morning commutes last week, I realized that a person's Dunbar number isn't constant. While driving, I think my number went to zero.

My short commute to work usually takes about 15-20 minutes. Traffic is pretty heavy as the interstate exit I use feeds many companies that have large office buildings. When things get snarled, the travel time goes up a lot. Last Wednesday morning a bad accident on the interstate closed a couple lanes for awhile and I heard shut down the interstate briefly so air care could land and transport someone to the hospital. That day it took me about 50 minutes to get to work! Last Thursday morning traffic was slow due to a body found under the interstate bridge at my exit. That morning I almost hit a driver that was changing lanes right in front of me without signaling. He continued lane changing and cutting off others just so he could get a couple car lengths ahead by the time we got to the stoplight at the end of the exit ramp.

The traffic delays didn't bother me – that's an unfortunate side effect created by someone's misfortune. What bothers me is the way people handle the situation. Drivers will accelerate and brake excessively to tailgate in an attempt to block people from changing lanes. That makes folks who want to change lanes even more aggressive. They often don't use signals (that's just a sign of weakness) and will simply ease over and muscle their way in or make a dangerous, sudden move just to get a few feet ahead! When that happens, I can't help but think people driving like that were the people who cut in lines at school or didn't play well with others in the sandbox. The rough commute would go much smoother if everyone would take their turn when merging, drive steady to stay the course, and accept a couple minute delay.

As I was crawling along observing all the crazy driving behaviors, it occurred to me how cars are mostly faceless. When you're going really slow you can see drivers immediately around you, but not well. Instead, the car is the focus -- an unfamiliar object and not a person I have any relationship with. In effect, when I'm commuting by myself my Dunbar number is zero. Generally I have no relationship to other cars on the road as it's rare to recognize a car of someone I know. Without any commuter relationships, folks make sudden moves or cuts to get ahead without feeling bad. I see it as a form of harsh treatment of those outside the monkeysphere. It's every car for themselves in a traffic jam. All respect for others or courteous behavior goes out the window. And yet, I assume, when they arrive at their destination they have normal, civil interactions with coworkers and friends.

So although Dunbar's theory links number to brain size, I think there is also a contextual component as evidenced by the road rage/traffic jam behaviors we've all seen.

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