A new Dunbar number

Robin Dunbar, the Oxford Professor of evolutionary psychology famous for the Dunbar number of 150, has come up with some new Dunbar numbers.

In a paper, Functional Benefits of (Modest) Alcohol Consumption, in the journal Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology and an article in the Financial Times (11/12 August 2018), on the social benefits of alcohol Dunbar looks at some major studies and comes to the conclusion that “we devote about 40% of our available social time (and the same proportion of our emotional capital) to an inner core of about five shoulders–to-cry-on. And we devote another 20% to the next 10 people who are socially important to us. In other words, about two-thirds of our total social effort is devoted to just 15 people”.

Now in Australia the research would be very controversial because part of it was done in conjunction with Camra (the Campaign for Real Ale) a UK group which campaigns for real ale instead of mass produced lagers. Here the anti-alcohol lobby would be beside themselves, dismiss the research as bunk and corrupt because of its connection with the alcohol industry and would be pressuring the research team’s university and colleagues to disown them.

However, this does not seem to have been the case with Dunbar, a Fellow of the British Academy, who has instead deployed a mixture of archaeological evidence; a massive longitudinal study of Whitehall civil servants reported in the British Medical Journal; a study of heart attack survival rates; a large YouGov survey; and, some anthropological observations in local pubs and large bars to draw some conclusions.

As for the archaeology the team points to the work of Patrick McGovern of University of Pennsylvania Museum who found residues of fermentation in Chinese clay vessels from eight millennia ago and the emerging view among some other archaeologists that Neolithic wheat and barley cultivation may have originated not for bread-making but for a fermented gruel. They point out that naturally fermenting fruit as a source of alcohol might have an even longer history.

When it comes to the Whitehall study, of some 9,000 civil servants, it found that those who had consumed no alcohol in their 40s and 50s – and those who typically consumed more than the official alcohol guidelines – had a greater risk of dementia than moderate drinkers. Those who drank a bottle of wine a day doubled the risk.

The number and quality of friendships you have is also a strong predictor of heart attack survival after 12 months – slightly ahead of giving up smoking and exercise, diet and what not. This was based on a 148 separate studies of heart attack patients.

The Dunbar team used the YouGov survey (2254 adults aged 18+) looked at standard factors (geography, age, gender) as well as asking questions about social connections to their community and whether they had a ‘local’ or not. They complemented this carrying by out two separate studies in pubs – four of them community pubs and two large city-centred bars.

The overall conclusion was: “Alcohol use has a long and ubiquitous history. Despite considerable research on the misuse of alcohol, no one has ever asked why it might have been universally adopted, although the conventional wisdom assumes it was hedonic. In contrast, we suggest that alcohol consumption was adopted because it has social benefits that relate both to health and social bonding……..(and) show that social drinkers have more friends on whom they can depend for emotional and other support, and feel more engaged with, and trusting of, their local community.” Indeed, they compare the effects to those of laughing, singing and dancing.

It was therefore not surprising that the study also found that sustained conversations were more likely in the local community pubs whereas in large scale bars with more drinkers in the group the shorter the conversations and the less attention paid to speakers.

Most importantly it appears that this is not just about a couple of drinks lighting up your life but probably is rather a result of triggering the endorphins which are intimately involved in building and maintaining friendships in humans and other monkeys and apes.

In the FT Dunbar writes: “Loneliness is a health threat to the western world, and the UK even has a dedicated minister to address the problem. How to solve it, of course, is a huge challenge, but encouraging people to get out and socialise over a few beers or a bottle of wine at the village pub may be a good place to start.”

And therein lies the rub at least as far as Australia goes. There aren’t many village (town) pubs left and in many small country towns (where loneliness and suicide rates are high) the pub too often goes some time after the local bank branch is closed. In the cities the tendency is towards larger drinking holes and bars although walking through Melbourne, Adelaide or other cities not condemned to NSW lock out and last drink laws there are still lots of places which seem to be both the modern day equivalent of the traditional snug and less prone to the increased levels of crime and violence associated with the NSW laws.

Declaration of interest: The blog has worked for the alcohol industry and enjoys a glass or two of wine.