[originally published on Medium]
Whether you’re trying to get that cute guy or gal to notice you, land a prospective customer, or even ace that job interview, there may actually be something physically preventing the person from giving a crap about you. But don’t despair — you may still be swimming in their Puddle of Intrigue, and that means there’s still hope.
In1992, Dr. Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist who is currently head of the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford (translation: he’s super-duper smart) discovered a physical limitation in all primate brains (including ours) that revealed a capacity to the number of relationships we can maintain at one time.
That number for humans is about 150, and is now famously known as Dunbar’s Number. Further research of this neocortex processing capacity suggests explanations for the diversity found in language and dialects, and has also been identified as the optimal group size for everything from military regiments to employee departments to MMORPGs and social networks.
But it wasn’t until 2007, when the executive editor of the very funny Cracked.com, Jason Pargin (a.k.a. David Wong) took the theory and explained in a way that we, the ignorant masses, could run with the ball. Or sphere, to be exact.
In his hilarious (and easily understandable) article, David Wong explained “What is the Monkeysphere?”, replete with NSFW expletives including my new favorite, “shitcamel”. It was this very article that led me on my own personal fascination with this magical number and how it might apply to our lives.
As a digital commerce strategist and speaker, I immediately recognized that this number must have something to do with marketing and customer relationships, but I wasn’t prepared for the mental assault and lucidity I experienced that soon followed.
At this point, we should digress slightly to recognize another famous smart dude and his equally smarty-pants number theory, Vilfredo Pareto and his Pareto’s Principle — better known as the 80/20 rule.
Pareto was an Italian Economist at the University of Lausanne who, in 1896, wrote “Cours d’économie politique” which observed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by only 20% of the population. To get our brains really bubbling, he also identified that 20% of his garden peapods were responsible for 80% of his delicious pea harvest. Thus, the 80/20 rule was born.
The 80/20 rule is now an accepted mathematical law with empirical evidence across a spectrum of accounts, including business (80% of your revenue comes from 20% of your customers) to economics, sports (20% of athletes win 80% of the awards) and even customer service (80% of your customer support will be generated by 20% of your customers).
Now that we understand these two all-powerful, God-like numbers (gosh, won’t we sound smart at that cocktail party next week?), let’s go jump in a puddle.
I came up with the Puddle of Intrigue following weeks of agonizing reflection on the implications of Dunbar’s Number. If I can only manage 150 stable relationships — limited by the size of my brain (and let’s face it, that doesn’t appear to be growing at any discernible rate) — then what happens to the other people in my life? The ex-girlfriends? The former bosses whose asses I kissed on a daily basis? The 2nd grader that waited for me at the bus stop every morning to take the thirty five cents of lunch money from my pockets? These people used to be in that 150 seat “monkeysphere”, but now have been replaced by more immediate relationships such as my wife, the clients whose asses I kiss on a daily basis, and the 2nd grader I parented that is compelled to take any loose change from my pockets.
The residents of our Dunbar Number of today are vastly different than the one we had in our youth. It’s quite likely that it’s changed dramatically even in the past few years.
So, if people can flow in and out of our neocortex governing limits, what happens to them when they get pushed out?
It’s not like they become totally forgotten. Rather, like Wayne and Garth, they become simply “not worthy”. And what about our current acquaintances? If we grow fonder of them, and they eventually become card-carrying, monkeysphere-member relationships, does someone else we cared about get the axe?
For these answers, I turned to Pareto for assistance. And a little old-school math requiring a pencil, some paper, and a lot of erasers.
I hypothesized that there must be a larger number of people that exist just outside of our 150, and from this set they flow in and out of our monkeysphere through an amoeba-like membrane. In fact, that’s exactly what it would look like — our monkeysphere isn’t a sphere at all — it’s the nucleus of a larger creature, and that creature is swimming happily in the Puddle of Intrigue.
If Pareto had it right, then the number 150 would be the 20% of the people that hold 80% of our interest; therefore, becoming the most interesting and deserving of our affection and attention. 150 is 20% of 750 (the size of our amoeba-like organism), and so it stands to reason there are about 600 “persons of interest” in the cytoplasm outside our nucleus that we maintain efforts to recognize and extend our superficial-but-well-intentioned regards (i.e. likes, follows and “our thoughts are with you in this time of need” comments).
On occasion, someone from our Cytoplasm might have a moment of significance, and temporarily or permanently enter our Nucleus. We enjoy these new relationships with great enthusiasm, like a new toy on Christmas day. And, by extension, someone who hasn’t been keeping their plates spinning fast enough for us, loses our immediate focus and drifts back out into the Cytoplasm, no longer one of our “stable relationships”. It’s a microbe-eat-microbe world in our mental amoeba.
Now that we’ve deducted that our organism is approximately 750 persons big, let’s dig deeper…
My theory (and by theory, I mean, lunatic ramblings. Clearly, I’m no Oxford professor) is that our interest, attention and affection isn’t limited to only “people”. I believe products and brands dwell there as well. How else could one explain Apple fan-boys, Pokemon Go, and Comic-Con? I also believe that brands and products can penetrate the coveted Nucleus — even if only for a day, or an hour — to become one of our prized relationships! Enter a new paradigm of Customer Relationship Management.
But let’s zoom out further — beyond our Organism. Seven hundred fifty must represent another 20% of a larger whole, right? After all, we are aware and monitoring, in some form or another, more than 750 persons, brands and products that interest us. It turns out that 750 is exactly one fifth (that’s 20%, for those having trouble keeping up) of 3,750. Yep, 3000 more nutrients floating around our Organism, in what I’ve dubbed The Puddle of Intrigue.
It is here where everyone and everything else that intrigues us is stored. The Kardashians, the Tesla we cannot afford, Donald Trump’s Twitter feed… It’s all there, competing for our organism’s attention.
Once we understand our place in another person’s puddle, we can begin to strategize a way to move in deeper.
Perhaps, even for the briefest of moments (like the time it takes to open a wallet, agree to a date, or click a buy button) we can enter their Nucleus. This requires a level of understanding, marketing prowess, and no small amount of high quality to achieve. Difficult? You bet.
But ultimately, the solution might be as simple as those one-celled protozoa we’ve analogized. All it takes, whether a person, a product or a brand, is to become more interesting to the individual (not everyone), provide something of real value, and always make good on a promise.
This article is my attempt to get into your Nucleus — did it work? If so, follow me at @profitability4u!