20 February 2009

Who's in Your Monkeysphere?

First, what's a monkeysphere and why does it have such a dumb name? Well, the term itself is just another name for Dunbar's Number. See, this anthropologist Robin Dunbar did a study back in the early 90s, involving some of our primate cousins and a bunch of mathematical figurin', and came up with a theory about why we humans can be such assholes to our fellow humans. The basic idea is that we can only conceptualize a certain number of people as real people and then the rest just become a vast group of "other". The size of our brains decides this number for us. As humans, we can apparently handle a group of perhaps 150 - 300 people as real individuals. Our lesser cousins can only recognize, and thus peacefully live in, much smaller groups. Chimps and such maintain these groups by social grooming and there's even a theory that human speech developed because our groups kept growing and we simply didn't have enough time to socially groom each other. So, we started talking to maintain social bonds. Verbal communication replaced grooming, how 'bout that?

Anyway, back to the theory. Since we can only conceptualize a certain number of people as real individuals the rest are little more than walking statistics. For instance, we are deeply disturbed if someone we know and love is killed in an accident. But if a thousand people are killed somewhere in the Pacific by an earthquake we aren't all that bothered by it. We might say something like "oh, that's awful" and perhaps donate some money to the rescue efforts but that's about it. We aren't all that broken up by it even though many, many more lives were lost. And why is that? Those thousand people killed in that disaster are just as real as you and me. They were just as alive as we are now. And now they are just as dead as our loved one killed in the accident. But because they are outside our little sphere they don't matter as much. We don't know them personally, we can't recognize them as real people and so we don't feel as bad.

Or think of it this way.

Remember how yesterday you got cut off in traffic and flipped the bird and shouted several vile things at the offending driver? Think about what you said and did. Would you feel comfortable saying such things to someone you actually know? Probably not. And why? Because you know them and you know how much it would hurt them. And you also know that, if this someone you knew did something to piss you off, they were probably distracted by their own problems and didn't realize they were wronging you. But you could easily say horrible things to the jerk on the freeway because you don't have the concept of him/her as a real person in your mind. Why? Because that stranger on the road is outside your monkeysphere and doesn't qualify as one of your group.

Now, about us being total assholes to our fellow humans. Ya know how we always wonder how terrorists can do the horrible things they do? Well, it's because they don't see anyone outside their little sphere as real. So, it's kinda easy for them to do the things they do as they only conceptualize a few hundred people as real, as relevant. They can easily arrange the deaths of thousands because none of those thousands are real. The same goes for us when we think of them. We don't know them, they aren't real people. They are simply listed under the heading "terrorist" and that's it. I'm not equating ideologies here, just relating how the monkeysphere phenomenon affects all of us regardless of our politics or views on wholesale murder which is, obviously, the business to which most terrorists are devoted.

Where am I going with this? I don't know. I've just been wondering about the nature of human cruelty lately and how the monkeysphere theory relates to it. The psychiatrists of the world say that certain types of people lack the ability to see others, even those who should be within their monkeysphere, as real. That's why some violent criminals lack empathy for their victims; they aren't real in their eyes, which I guess makes some sense. If you don't see anyone as a real person it would be a lot easier to rape, beat, torture and kill them.

And I wonder if our constantly growing populations are only making the asshole behavior worse. If there are more and more and more of us there's too many to recognize and so we become more and more discourteous to others because they aren't real people. They are "other". And this lack of courtesy become rudeness and agitation, disdain and can eventually lead to outright cruelty and violence. I can't prove any of this of course. I can only use myself as an example. You see, I am not a social person, never have been. I am a hermit by nature and I rarely leave the house (and by rarely I mean I leave the house twice, maybe three times a month) so my monkeysphere of people I physically interact with is very small. I believe this is what enables me to be much more courteous to others who often receive abuse, like cashiers and others in the service industry. My monkeysphere is small so I find it quite easy to recognize pretty much everyone I come across as a real, genuine, feeling, thinking, breathing, living, growing, aging individual. And I know this hasn't always been the case.

For instance, when I worked in a busy hospital, and came across hundreds of people each day, I was much more likely to see patients as faceless, nameless numbers. There were simply too many to include in my personal monkeysphere. This helped me maintain my sanity to a degree by allowing me to distance myself from their pain and discomfort. But it also hurt me, and them, in the sense that I wasn't always as compassionate and understanding as I could have been. I wasn't trying to be insensitive; I couldn't help it. Simply put, my monkeysphere was full to max capacity leaving little room for compassion.

So perhaps our exponentially growing population is doing more damage than we realize at first glance. We're not just straining our resources to the breaking point. We're not just damaging our environment, perhaps irrevocably. We're not just mismanaging food and social services leaving many out in the cold and starving. If this monkeysphere idea is the real deal we are forcing ourselves to relegate most of the world into a realm where they don't exist as real people.

I'll have more to say about the monkeysphere theory in forthcoming bloggings. I'm especially interested in how it relates to our wild and wonderful internet world and the somewhat bizarre communications and relationships that spring from it.


Cygnus MacLlyr said...

Can I still opt for grooming versus social banter?
Just asking..

WOW... good perspective-- think of Joe Traffic as your uncle, and suddenly maybe you're wiling to let him merge to your lane...

I don't think we become more discourteous, only more so to more people..


The concept makes too much sense to be deniable, and to formulate the postulate we've all thought about- e.g. how this affects the blogosphere...

I'm glued!


Livia Indica said...

I think some of might need to go for the social grooming, maybe we'd get along better!

Glad you like this post. I'm a bit rusty and was worried I would ramble on like an idiot!

Aquila ka Hecate said...

That was a great post, Livia!

I'm also a hermit, outside of my workplace, and the people in my sphere at home are more nonhumans than humans.
But at work I think the sphere is fully populated - we have a staff at the same rough number as a filled monkeysphere!

How this pertains to the net is an interesting question.
And how it pertains to us being able to feel Love and Compassion for All would be another great question.

Terri in Joburg

Livia Indica said...

Hey Terri. You've brought up two things I neglected to mention before: whether or not our furbabies are included in our monkeysphere and what the theory means in terms of how to generate feeling for all. I think this might become a series!

Sloth Womyn said...

I love evolutionary psychology stuff. It blows my mind! Verbal communication replaced grooming? I'm going to muse on that all day.

Totally makes sense now why people from L.A. are such assholes. 5 million is way to much to fit into our monkeywhatever!

It is also interesting to note why (at least for me) we can be so honest on the internet, more honest than to the people we know. Is it because we don't imagine the readers being real? Hmmmm.

Cygnus MacLlyr said...

Terri's point about how our monkeysphere affects us embracing all... i LOVE this line of thought!
Moire like lines...

Love ya, Liv!

Marion said...

A really interesting post, Livia. You've come back with gusto!

Your post makes me think...I'm also somewhat of a solitary hedge witch and I also love to make people I do see feel great...mostly all strangers, at this point in my life.

Thank you!

Livia Indica said...

Sloth Womyn, yeah, I'm fascinated by this stuff too! I'm wondering about the internet monkeysphere too. There's anonymity but some people form close relationships via the internet. Gonna have to think on that and blog about it.

Cygnus, Yep, I'm thinking of writing about how to grown one's own monkeysphere so that we can conceptualize every person as real.

Marion, hey I'm glad I've managed to come back with something thought provoking!

Jenavira said...

Hah, I just had a long, rambly conversation about this kind of thing with my roommate the other day, although I came at it from a different angle -- see, I have this mild fascination with serial killers, who, as you pointed out, kind of exemplify the extreme end of this spectrum. (Ted Bundy, when he was finally captured in Florida, expressed regret for being stupid enough to give in to his "compulsion" and get caught by the police. He was so enjoying his freedom.)

The study you mentioned reminded me of another study I read in my anthropology days -- I really ought to look it up again -- about the size of groups that can be reasonably managed. Basically groups are stable at between three and seven people as a *group*, and anything more than that you have to start developing sub-groups and organizational schemes and things.

These kind of constraints on the way people interact are fascinating to me; because of course, we figure out how to interact with more than seven people at once all the time, and in the same way, through the course of my life there have definitely been more than 300 real people. Not all at once, surely; those people I haven't talked to since high school aren't really real people to me right now, and probably won't be unless I become close to them again. People drift in and out of our monkeyspheres constantly (which is one of the themes of disaster stories, or even stories in general, isn't it -- people can become real people to one another very quickly under the right circumstances...)

Livia Indica said...

I was just thinking about how people who were once fixtures in our monkeyspheres can fade out, either by choice, distance or whatever, and how there's perhaps a "backup monkeysphere" for these people. A special sub-sphere for those we once saw as real but later became more abstract.

Alex M. said...

You should really give credit to Cracked.com and David Wong in this blog post, the guy who coined the term 'Monkeysphere', and many of the examples you used came straight from his popular article.

Livia Indica said...

I was unaware that Wong was the originator of the term. In fact, I'm still not convinced of such a claim and can find nothing to verify it. Google "monkeysphere" and there's well over 40,000 hits some of which state that Dunbar himself coined the term. And I don't care for your phrasing "many of the examples you use came straight from his popular article". Wong used a brief example of traffic issues. I thought it was a good way to illustrate the theory, but not quite as developed as I'd like. So I created my own more complex and lengthy example which I used to further personalize and expand the idea. And Wong used Bin Laden as an example; I took a wider view and said "terrorists" instead of a particular person. And except for those two similarities -two, not many- my blog posts have little in common with Wong's article.