You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney

You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney

Author:David McRaney [McRaney, David]
Language: eng
Format: epub, mobi
Publisher: Penguin Group USA, Inc.
Published: 2011-09-20T21:00:00+00:00

Think of a cup completely filled with water. You try to add one drop to this cup, and one drop spills out. You try to pour a cup of water into it, and a cup of water spills out. This is called a zero-sum system. To add anything to it you must remove an equal proportion.

The bank of names and faces and relationships in your mind, the one you use to keep up with who is a friend, who is a foe, and who is a potential mate—this bank is a zero-sum system too. The reason for this doesn’t really have to do with how much space you have to keep the information, it has to do with how much energy you have on tap to devote to worrying about your place in your social world.

In other primates, social relationships are maintained by grooming—picking bugs off of one another. You don’t go to a Mad Men party and dig around in your friend’s hair while watching the show. But getting together for any reason is still a grooming behavior. You hang out, work on projects, and talk on the phone to keep connected. Visiting friends just to shoot the shit is the human equivalent of picking ticks off of one another’s backs. As technology has allowed you to be farther and farther apart yet still keep in touch with loved ones, your grooming behavior has remained constant. In fact, most of your innate gregariousness works as it always has by adapting to the norms of the era. In modern life, human relationships are no longer separated geographically. You can probably start with any one person alive and play six degrees of separation to get to any other person. Modern humans are deeply interconnected.

But you can’t keep up with all those people and their connections, not in a real social way—you are not so smart. The truth is, out of this cluster of humans you can reliably manage to keep up with only around 150 people. More specifically, it’s between 150 and 230. Giant cities full of other humans, Internet social networks with hundreds of people sharing status updates, corporations with branches around the world—your brain is incapable of handling the multitude of human contacts populating these examples. All those personalities and quirks, the history of your interactions with each, it becomes a giant file of social information that takes constant maintenance. Psychology has shown us the brain is not like a hard drive, so the problem with too many relationships isn’t a space issue. The problem is more about the economic limits of your mental human relations department.

Why is this?

The neocortex of primates is the part of the brain responsible for keeping up with others. We can’t be certain of what forces shaped the size of this part of the brain, but for each primate the size of the cortex correlates with the size of the average social group. Apes live in small groups; humans live in big ones. Robin


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