I came across an interesting read the other day. It has to do with Monkeys, philosophy, social interaction, biology, small business development, gaming, and several other areas of diverse interest. I thought about trying to explain it shorthand, but it makes for better understanding if you just go read it in full.
Go ahead, read it … I’ll wait until you get back: What is the Monkeysphere?
OK, I know. A bit crude. Lots of room for debating the points he raised and picking apart his post. But at the core of the “monkeysphere” is some research done by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar on a relationship between the brain size of chimpanzees and the number of chimps found in stable groups. Dunbar used this research to correlate the number of relationships that a human could handle. The number is generally agreed to be around 150. That is, biologically speaking, we can’t really handle more than 150 or so personal relationships. Any more, and we lose the feeling, the personal connection for the group.
You can read more about Dunbar’s number here.
Now, don’t get lost in the minutia. Let’s say, for arguments sake, whatever the number may be for any one person, there are people we care greatly about, people we care generally about, and people that we really don’t think/care about too much at all. Can we agree with that? OK?
So what does this have to do with traffic?
Automobiles give us a sense of anonymity, and that psychology allows people to do things they would never do face-to-face when behind the wheel. Add to that this biological factor that anything (or better anyone) anonymous is “outside my personal Monkeysphere” and we start to have a better understanding of why we see the behaviors we do when in traffic situations. Its like “I’m accountable to those I know, and not so much to those I don’t know.”
Ever notice how in smaller towns, or smaller settings, things just seem “friendlier?” Everyone knows everyone. Everyone has relationships. Everyone is in each other’s Monkeysphere, so everyone behaves in a much more socially stable way. You have to behave, because you are more likely to be recognized and subject to peer censure. Your behavior will influence how you drive, how you treat others. As outsiders in a small town, we can sense it and see it in action, like when we are cycling in these communities.
Dumbar’s number also gives us some insight as to why it is so difficult to mount a large-scale social change. We seem to have more reason to change our behavior when it affects those closest to us in our own personal Monkeysphere. It’s a point that Keri has made several times about how cycling (and civility) initiatives work best when they are home-grown. The change has to come from the bottom up, and not from the top down.
Is the Monkeysphere effect something we can work around?
I’d like to think we can work around this limit. I tend to think of this biological restriction as a “default”, rather than a hard limit or a number without change. That is, by default I care most about those I have personal relationships with. But I can work on pushing myself to include others.
Where I may not know (or care for) any one particular driver in traffic, when I humanize this person — make them real to me — I can, if even temporarily, bring them into my personal Monkeysphere. I can treat strangers with the same civility that I treat those in my personal Monkeysphere.
I can also be an example to others in my sphere of influence. If they relate to me and know I’m a cyclist, might they see a random cyclist and think of me? Civility campaigns, And We Bike, have worked on this principle.
We are connected to all people — humanity. Treating all people with the same respect we do with those in our Monkeysphere is… civility.