The Empathy Machine and Dunbar's number / by Andreas Kopriva


The above question serves as the cornerstone behind BeAnotherLab's fairly recent open source experiment involving two Oculus Rift headsets and a few webcams (full list of items used found here). The purpose is to investigate how viewing reality from another's perspective affects our perspectives and most importantly, how it may affect implicit bias. An overview of the experiment can be seen in the embed below. 

One of the issues the above experiment aims at exploring is that of implicit biases. 'Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner' states the Kirwan Institute in their feature on the subject. Furthermore, these biases, which may include both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without the individual's awareness or intentional control. 

In other words, we have tendencies to make judgement calls and assessments of situations based on deep-rooted subconscious beliefs that not only are we not aware of but that may be contradictory to our expressed perspective on an issue. The fact that we act based on such biases is even more worrisome, especially if one considers occupations where impartiality is considered necessary such as judges. 

A few key characteristics of Implicit biases as defined by the Institute include : 

  • Pervasiveness - we all possess them, even if it's our job to be impartial
  • They do not necessary align with our externalized beliefs - few people will admit to being racist for example, yet their subconscious suggests otherwise (try this test here or check out this documentary by PBS here
  • We tend to favor our own ingroup though we can still occasionally be biased against it
  • Implicit biases exhibit malleability - they can gradually be unlearned through the usage of a variety of debiasing techniques

All of the above characteristics, if taken to be true, paint us in a pretty horrible light. But there is a potential explanation behind all of this which could ease our minds ever so slightly and allow us to shift responsibility from our aware minds and unto our biology. 

According to British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, who studied the correlation between primate brain size and social group size and extrapolated those results to apply to humans, we may only have the capacity to hold 150 individuals in our social group. At this point it would be valuable to note that  H. Russell Bernard and Peter Killworth (US based anthropologists) found different numbers in field research based studies citing a mean of 290 ties with a median around 231, both of which are higher than what was discovered by Dunbar. 

This all appears strange when one considers that people aged between 18 and 29 appear to have around 300 friends  while 30 to 49 year olds have around 200. Then again, how many of those people can we honestly say that we have functional and rewarding relationships with, how many are acquaintances and, worse yet, how many are simply statistics because we like numbers going up?

I would argue though, that Dunbar's number may not be the most significant aspect of all this research but how it may potentially explain the aforementioned biases, along with a whole lot of other social issues we, as a species, appear to be facing in this day and age. 

Jason Pargin, aka David Wong, drafted a very concise and humorous explanation based on the above in an older Cracked article in 2007. In this article we proceeds to explain that a lot of the issues prevalent in society are based on our inherent inability to store more than a suggested number of individuals. He coined the term 'monkeysphere' for this social group, and suggests that, people outside of this sphere, are not really perceived as people of value to us. 

This leads to a sort of dehumanization whereby, people outside our social group or tribe, are simply labelled as the 'others'. This, as illustrated in the below clip by the magnificent Stephen Fry, is oftentimes used to facilitate and justify abhorrent acts. 

So, through this apparent limitation in social group size, we hold our social group dear and those outside it are practically irrelevant. Things occasionally escalate (to put it ever so mildly), and language is used to exacerbate this disconnect up until the point where the 'others' are dehumanized. Once this dehumanization takes place, blame and due judgment and execution are easier to be applied.

Of course, things are not that absolute, but it is a compelling association, one which appears to be widely applicable and which seems to explain how otherwise ordinary people end up carrying out horrific acts. 

A fantastic example is that stated by Stephen Fry in the video above where he mentions the book 'Those Were the Days'. The book is a collection of letters sent home from SS members and others of the Nazi party and refers to mass executions in gas chambers as something very ordinary, and essentially due process. Again, this is facilitated by dehumanizing language and labeling. Those gassed are not human beings - they are 'subhumans', 'vermin', the 'others' essentially. 

I believe that people are inherently good. That we are not necessarily primed for evil, nor that we will murder just casually. That's why the concepts behind biological limitations in terms of social groups combined with the efficacy of language as a dehumanization tool work to explain the existence of atrocities to me. 

We are, in a way, underdeveloped, living in a world where the technology and systems we have developed have shone a light on these exact limitations. We have not evolved to the point where the above are no longer issues, because quite simply, not enough time has passed yet. 

I also believe that we are capable of circumventing the above cases and it largely relates to efforts such as the experiment mentioned at the beginning of this article. By allowing ourselves to see things from an unknown perspective we create connections. We are made aware and we open up to alternative points of view. 

Once one is aware, then one can act a bit more carefully, in a more considered manner. One can choose not to utilize hateful monikers to describe the residents of another country, or of a different gender, sexual orientation, or religion. And if that callous labeling is curbed, then we may end up not dehumanizing our fellow humans which makes killing them, a tiny bit harder. 

You can read the entire paper for the BeAnotherLab experiment right here. Barring the creation of the Point of View gun, their methodology and cause seems to be worth learning about and supporting. 

You can also do the Harvard Implicit Association Test yourself at this link

The artwork at the top of the page is from DevArt user berkozturk - check out their profile at - some pretty cool stuff there.