The Rule Of 150 & Continuous Partial Attention

A recent comment on my blog kindled my curiosity to explore the cognitive implications of social tools . I get the feeling that there is a potential relationship between the popular “Rule Of 150″(Dunbar’s Number) and Continuous Partial Attention (CPA). Dunbar’s number is the “cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships” according to the Wikipedia.

As more people get on to the internet and as opportunities to expand our personal networks emerge like never before, we observe that we easily shoot past Dunbar’s number. CPA in my view is an evolutionary response to rapidly expanding personal connections that challenge our cognitive capabilities to break the barrier of 150. As we shoot past the limits of 150 we no longer look for stable relationships, we move into a state of “peripheral awareness” even as we continue to focus on the meaningful connections and the task at hand. Quoting from Wikipedia again: “Dunbar has theorized that 150 would be the mean group size only for communities with a very high incentive to remain together”. I am not looking for stable, meaningful and persistent relationships beyond a core group but I cannot ignore significant happenings outside my group of 150. I am slightly at odds with what Nat says on CPA:” Continuous partial attention isn’t motivated by productivity, it’s motivated by being connected. ” There is also a motivation/necessity to be aware(and even reading 100 blogs kicks in CPA) which in turn might have an impact on the decisions I make.

Stowe Boyd nailed it when he said : “The reality is that we need to be constantly scanning the horizon for events that are worthy of our attention. We can’t a afford to stay heads down for hours or days at a stretch when critically important events may be occuring that could require us to immediately respond to them. “[Via Smatmobs]. I agree when Nat says ” The next aphrodisiac is committed full-attention focus. In this new area, experiencing this engaged attention is to feel alive. Trusted filters, trusted protectors, trusted concierge, human or technical, removing distractions and managing boundaries, filtering signal from noise, enabling meaningful connections, that make us feel secure, are the opportunity for the next generation. Opportunity will be the tools and technologies to take our power back.” And yes, the tools and technologies should somehow limit trusted sources to some managable number less than 150 if we need to get rid of CPA.


4 thoughts on “The Rule Of 150 & Continuous Partial Attention

  1. Your post makes for interesting reading.I’m being exposed to the Dunbar’s number for the first time but on casual introspection, somehow that number of 150 does seem to be a reasonable estimate as to the limits of what human relationships and the cognitive faculty can allow.a couple of quick spontaneous thoughts that came to my mind -1)the select 150 must be a dyanamic set; for human relationships change through the journey of life 2)there must be gradations in this band of 150 based on levels of proximity, relationships, empathy etc amit

  2. Dinesh’s point about a mental concierge is apropos. The onslaught of information is making attention the issue for the new market economy. Go back and read Nathan Torkington on Linda Stone’s talk (she coined the term Continuous Partial Attention)…Well, can’t get the link in… I’ll post on my place, tho.Cheers!

  3. Dinesh -I’m actually doing a research project on social networks and corruption in India right now, and I was wondering if you have any knowledge of research on Dunbar’s number as it applies specifically to India or a particular Indian culture. The size of one’s social network turns out to be a crucial parameter in our agent-based model of corruption, and it would be interesting to see what happens with data that’s actually representative of India. If you get a chance to respond to this, just email me at or I’ll check back here for your response.- Jason Kerwin

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