Who Do We Choose to Care About? The Allocation of our Emotional Capital
There is something called Dunbar’s number which proposes that, on average, a person can only maintain 150 relationships at a time. This number was popularized, with a disproportionate sense of false precision, in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 bestseller “The Tipping Point.”
Robin Dunbar, a Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford came up with his number of 150 by researching primates and primitive societies as well as using the intuitive test of how many people you would gladly have a drink with if you ran into them by chance.
In a 2018 FT article, Dunbar refined his analysis to suggest that most people will devote about 40% of their time and emotional “capital” to their five closest people and another 20% to the next closest ten people, leaving 40% for the rest. These numbers are certainly impervious to any sort of rational analysis, but nevertheless they’re provocative of introspection.
In that same article, continuing on his theme of alcohol, Dunbar extoled the virtues of social drinking as a way of firing up endorphins, creating bonding times with friends and family, and combatting loneliness. Reminiscent of the world created by the TV show “Cheers,” set in a local bar (or pub) where everybody not only knows your name but greets you with it when you enter.
I have not gone through the exercise of trying to list my “150 Dunbars.” It would be a laborious exercise; my Dunbar number might make me feel inadequate; and, in the worst and saddest case, it could lead to a compulsive-obsessive trap where I created a “Dunbar” spreadsheet and organized my days by looking to add relationships for the sake of my spreadsheet. Opportunities for awkwardness would abound.
Outside the Dunbar circuit of close, near-close, and acquaintance-like relationships, there is a wholly different category of people who we “invest” in: people we don’t know and who we will likely never meet. How much emotional capital might we spend on these strangers who may not even be real, who may exist only in books or movies or television shows?
When I was an adolescent, one of my very close emotional investments was in my favorite pro athlete, Clark Gillies, all-star left winger for the fabled NY Islander dynasty of the early 1980s. I was a stranger to him, but by idolizing him, he gave me tremendous amounts of self-esteem, much needed at that time in my life.
More recently, over the last few decades, I’ve developed a close bond with the semi-autobiographical narrator of Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.” I know more about the life of this creation of Proust than I do about anyone outside my inner Dunbar circle.
And, currently, when I binge on a long television series, the characters acquire for me a life-like resonance, especially those who are in the classic hero mode of battling for justice against a really well conceived villain. While watching, I’m emotionally invested, for sure.
The celebrity of the 21st century who has been the greatest magnet for emotional capital is Donald Trump. Many Americans had and still have an intimate relationship with Trump (punsters, have at it!) either as hero or villain. I admit to having squandered a great deal of emotional capital in the form of angst and shame about Trump. I’m not sure what return, if any, Trump has delivered to either his detractors or his fans, and in hindsight I’m sure I could have found a lot better bang for my emotional buck elsewhere.
My investment of emotional capital in news stories calls forth the adage (attributed, speculatively, to Stalin) that a million deaths is a statistic, while one death is a tragedy. At about the same time that America passed the one million mark in Covid related deaths, the shootings in Buffalo occurred. The shootings were far more disturbing to me than the accumulated Covid deaths. I cannot imagine a million deaths, but I could imagine the terror of the victims and the non-victims in the Buffalo grocery store. The setting of being in a grocery store is a familiar one to everyone.
Perhaps it’s useful here to distinguish between an emotional reaction and a purely intellectual reaction, the latter being a recitation in one’s mind of facts, requiring some purposeful effort. Such a reaction tends to have a short half-life. An emotional reaction, on the other hand, requires no effort. It just happens. And it can last a long time.
There’s a (Proustian) analogue in two different types of memory. On the one hand, there’s an involuntary memory that surprises, brought on by a sensation––a smell, or a song, or a taste, or even a face. That type of memory is powerful and can color your mood. The other type of memory, more frequent, is voluntary, something that we purposefully recall. Once summoned, that memory tends to lose its power.
My more powerful, involuntary sorts of memories almost always relate to the people in the inner circle of my Dunbar number. A smell that reminds me of my mother’s cachet. Or a bouncing ball that summons a memory of my seven year old son giggling while chasing a runaway orange-colored ping-pong ball. Or a song (the Stones’ “100 years Ago”) that reminds me of a day decades past in the countryside with my brother.
I offer no grand conclusion other than to underscore the cliché we all frequently hear about investing the preponderance of your emotional capital in your friends and family. It’s one of those clichés that is absolutely true. Leaving some room, of course, for heroes, real or otherwise, as well as the occasional fictional villain. Spending emotional capital on real villains is depressing and enervating and a waste. Unless you can do something about them. Like vote them out of office.
If you care to, share any fictional characters to whom you feel close. Or is that just a weird affectation of my own?
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