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VI.6 Nov.-Dec. 1999
Page: 20
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Social perspectives

Robin Dunbar

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It's not exactly pleasant being groomed by an ape. The ape grabs an area of skin and pinches you really hard, leaving a sore, red spot. "But it does stimulate the body's production of opiates so you feel good afterwards. It's a bit like a sauna. It may not be immediately pleasant being beaten with a bunch of birch twigs but it leaves you with a glowing sensation of good health."

Dunbar, author of The Trouble with Science and Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, is back in his study in Liverpool. As a psychologist, his research concentrates on the biological and evolutionary aspects of the human mind. His field of interest covers the gamut of evolution. Objects of his research include the modern phenomenon of the personal ad, but he is also to be found among the wild goats in Scotland or the apes of Africa in his search for insight into the roots of our everyday behavior.

Grooming is a favorite form of communication between apes. "It is a means of forming alliances and friendships. It's a bit like men drinking beer together and slapping one another on the back. The physical activity helps create a feeling of trust between individuals," Dunbar says. But grooming is a time-consuming method of communication. In order to survive among physically far stronger predators, our human ancestors gathered into ever larger bands. A group size of 150 individuals seems to be about the maximum at which mutual relationships can be maintained by grooming. Large groups demand greater coordination among the members. That, Dunbar argues in Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, is why human language evolved.

"The lack of a sense of community may be the most pressing social problem of the new millennium"


It is a quick and efficient way of communicating among members of larger groups. To this day, language remains primarily a social lubricant, as Dunbar's research has revealed. About two-thirds of our conversational exchanges are social chit-chat, he writes. "Who's doing what with whom, and whether it's a good or a bad thing. Or how to deal with a difficult situation involving a lover, a child or a colleague." We spend a lot of time involved in gossip, but it is rarely malicious. Only 5 percent of our conversational time relates to direct criticism of others.

Now and then, we also talk about weighty matters such as politics, art, science or complicated technical problems at work. But friends and acquaintances, according to Dunbar, rarely keep up a discussion on serious intellectual topics for long. Within about five minutes, the conversation returns to the natural rhythms of social life. Only in special contexts, such as conferences and business lunches, are we restricted to general, non-intimate subjects, which carry fewer personal risks. A similar situation occurs when men try to make an impression on the opposite sex.

Among themselves, Dunbar discovered that men, like women, prefer conversing about social odds and ends. The only difference is that men spend two-thirds of the time talking about themselves, whereas women spend two-thirds talking about other people. In mixed company the picture changes dramatically. Men take the lead in discussing serious topics, whereas women tend to adopt a listening role.

Language may have enabled the magnificent achievements of Plato and Kant, but in the area of emotional communication people are still "typical apes," according to Dunbar. "The problem is that unlike grooming, language does not stimulate the release of opiates. That is why we tend to abandon language in really intimate situations and revert to physical contact."

In more impersonal or temporary contacts, people seek other ways of compensating the emotional poverty of the spoken word. "Laughter and smiling do stimulate the body to release opiates. That is why we laugh so much in working situations, and why we eat or play golf with our business contacts. "It's not the golf that's important," Dunbar explains, "but the bonding that results from doing things together."


The managers of multinational corporations still travel around the world to speak with local colleagues and customers despite the boom in e-mail and other forms of telecommunication. Face to face communication remains indispensable in business as well as personal contacts, Dunbar believes, when you need to trust the other person. "The root of the problem is that we still rely heavily on physiological processes in our communication. You cannot replace going to the pub or spending an evening in the beer keller together."

"If you know the other person well, half a picture is enough. A photo of baby's tiny feet melts Grandma's heart"


Visual cues are particularly important in forming an assessment of others. "We used to think that the speaker did the most work in a conversation," Dunbar says. "But in fact it's the listener who expends the most effort. As a listener you have to work out the intention behind the words. The speaker's facial expression is your main source of information. Eye contact is critical. As the saying goes: never trust a man who cannot look you in the eye. It's hard to judge that person's intentions. The spoken word is itself often very ambiguous. We tend to skirt around things and leave things vague—it makes it easier to pull back without losing face. We wait for a positive reaction from the other person before committing ourselves."

Modern communication channels such as video conferencing are not very successful in transmitting these visual cues, Dunbar says. "Research shows that video conferencing does not work well unless the participants already know one another personally. Only then are they able to decipher each other's intentions from the little video screen." So visual communication using things like videophones or the swapping of still images should be ideal for contact with family or close friends. If you know the other person well, half a picture is enough. A photo of baby's tiny feet melts Grandma's heart.

Dunbar believes that the modern family will respond warmly to new inventions that boost emotional communication in images. On the one hand, family members communicate with one another much more intensively than in the past. On the other, they are becoming increasingly dispersed across different towns or even different countries.


As a psychologist with a biological slant, Dunbar has an evolutionary explanation for the fact that parents and children are communicating and discussing more than they used to. He ascribes the nineteenth century attitude that "children should be seen and not heard" to the family size prevalent in that period. When seated around the dinner table with 8 or 10 children, Victorian parents had to uphold strict rules to prevent the whole thing from descending into chaos. The smaller nuclear family of four or five members, by contrast, can afford to allow quite a lot of talking back.

The main problem facing the modern family is dispersal, Dunbar argues. "There has always been a tradition in certain circles for the children to go and study at a university in another city. But this pattern has become increasingly widespread. Easier travel and communication have made it possible for young people to move farther from their parental home in search of a career." The result is that communities are being torn apart, Dunbar says. "The lack of social contact, the lack of a sense of community, may be the most pressing social problem of the new millennium," he writes. Modern people tend to underestimate the importance of kinship. "Family bonds tend to be of a very intense social nature. Its members are capable of forgiving the most appalling behavior. A comparable level of tolerance is unknown elsewhere. I am referring of course to family members who are genetically related. Crime statistics show that a child is much more likely to be murdered by a step-parent than by one of its biological parents. Naturally, these are extreme cases and the actual numbers involved are tiny. But the figures are revealing. We are prepared to put up with much more from our own children. If they exasperate us, we just hold back."

People are much more vulnerable when they have no relatives to turn to. "There are some spectacular illustrations from the past. The Donner Party, a group of American pioneers, set off for the Wild West in 1846. The ones who did not survive the hardships of the journey were the independent young men. They were strong enough to make it to the West on their own—or so they thought. But they fell prey to all kinds of illness and just faded, because they received too little care and emotional support."

"Visual images can stir up the emotions"


Isn't this picture of a vanishing sense of community all too drastic? Isn't the tendency of modern man to seek looser social bonds just part of Dunbar's evolutionary logic? The safer people feel, the smaller the groups in which they can successfully live. In the West we are safer than ever: predatory animals are nonexistent, infectious diseases are largely curable, and the welfare state gives a biologically unprecedented level of economic security. "That certainly plays a part," Dunbar says. "But dispersal of the family is nonetheless a real problem. You may think you have a network of friends, but when the chips are down, when you hit hard times, you see your friends gradually drifting away. Family is irreplaceable in this respect—they support you unconditionally. Friends always expect some kind of reciprocation."

Dunbar expects much of new devices to bolster emotional communication among members of the dispersed family. There is already a growing e-mail traffic between family members who live apart. "But words are a poor way of expressing emotions. That is why so few people are capable of writing convincingly about their feelings. Visual images can stir up the emotions. A picture is worth more than a thousand words—a cliché, perhaps, but often true all the same," he says.

"It's clear that people react very emotionally to realistic images. Faces have a way of grabbing our attention. When you read a biography, you want to see photos of the protagonist and his or her surroundings. But an image doesn't have to be realistic—a drawing little Johnny has made for his grandma could have an impact too."

Can't we just send images like these by e-mail? Do we really need a new gizmo in addition to the computer? "Of course you could mail an image like that, but you'd also have to write: "Dear Grandma, little Johnny has done a drawing for you, please click on the attachment." It'd be quite a different matter if the drawing were to appear suddenly on Granny's screen more or less as a surprise."

Translation: Victor Joseph

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Robin Dunbar <> is a professor of Psychology in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Liverpool in the UK. In his book Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language Dunbar promotes the view that gossiping is vital to a society. His previous books include Primate Social Systems, The Evolution of Culture and The Trouble with Science.

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