Traffic, Civility and the Monkeysphere Effect

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.

12 replies
  1. ToddBS
    ToddBS says:

    I loved the article; it had me in stitches. And I also love your analysis of its relevance to our situation as cyclists. I couldn’t agree more. It pains me when I see a cyclist do something that irritates a motorist. I usually think “Great, now that driver is going to be really ticked at the next cyclist he sees”. And all too often the next one is me.

  2. JohnB
    JohnB says:

    I loved the article too! The humor probably made me even more inclined to agree with it, critically or not.

    Yesterday, I was first in line at a red light, going straight in the rightmost lane, which was a combination throught/right turn lane. As always in this situation, I positioned myself (on my bike) in left side of the lane.

    Two other cyclists came up behind me, also intending to go straight, although one stayed far to the right, and one just a bit more to the right than me, but a few more feet forward (in front of the stop line).

    I then noticed a car behind us all, with its right turn signal on. It could have easily pulled to my right and turned right on red, except these two other cyclists were in the way. As nicely as I could, I said to them “You know, if you guys were over in the left part of the lane here, that car could turn right on red.” Their response was just to shrug and mumble something that I didn’t quite catch.

    Conclusion: The car driver was outside their monkeysphere.

    Proposal: Treat any driver (motor or otherwise) in your immediate area as an honorary, temporary member of your monkeysphere, at least until they prove themselves unworthy.

    Comment: Kudos to that motorist for his or her patience.

  3. Keri
    Keri says:

    I agree with your point about making space for the motorist to turn right. I try to do that, and encourage groups to do it. It’s a little friendly thing we can do because we’re narrow. But if you think about it from another angle, there were 3 cyclists occupying the space of a single car. A single car would most likely have had only one occupant. If there were three cars in front of that guy, he couldn’t have turned right, either. Nor could he have if there was one.

    Just sayin’


  4. Doohickie
    Doohickie says:

    I haven’t read the article yet, but when riding, I think I do try to “add” people into my monkeysphere. I do this with eye contact, standard hand signals that are maybe embellished a bit (pointing down into the specific lane I want, moving my hand up and down a bit at a turn signal cadence, etc.), by waving and smiling. I think by doing this, I work my way into the drivers’ monkeyspheres, if only during the encounter.

    I’ve started to see my bicycle advocacy efforts as being solitary- one on one encounters with drivers that (hopefully) have a positive impact on all people involved.

  5. Keri
    Keri says:

    Do you guys often have motorists ask you for directions? I get that a lot. It’s one of the most common personal interactions I have with people in cars.

    I can almost always help in Orlando, but had to laugh that it happened a bunch of times on our bike trip. Like, these big red touring panniers might be a clue that we’re not from here…

  6. ToddBS
    ToddBS says:

    That’s funny. I got stopped (literally, it was raining and I was trying hard to get home but this guy pulled up next to me and stopped to ask me a question) just the other day for the first time. I didn’t mind, really. Just thought it was funny.

    When I’m driving in the car, I’ve never thought “hey, there’s a cyclist, I’ll ask him”. I guess my lack of a steel cage and windows makes me seem more approachable on a bike though. +1 for bikes as being good for the community 🙂

  7. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    Ditto on the good, funny link.

    There is fortunately a very powerful force that counters the Monkeysphere effect: expectation. Jean Liedloff wrote about it in her book “The Continuum Concept,” and I applied it to cycling in “Expect a New Reality.”

    See page 23 at

    Until bicyclists learn en masse how to wield the force of expectation, we will continue to have the same complaints and debates.

  8. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    Also, note that in some parts of this country, motorists reliably yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, even when those crosswalks are not accompanied by traffic signals or stop signs. The crosswalk laws are essentially the same in all the states. What’s different is Expectation.

  9. Keri
    Keri says:

    And enforcement, too, I suspect. Though maybe crosswalks were never abandoned in some places like they were here.

    But yeah, once you’ve created a culture where crosswalks are respected, it becomes self-perpetuating due to expectation.

    Same would easily be the case with integrated bicyclists.

  10. fred_dot_u
    fred_dot_u says:

    While reading the MonkeySphere link, I kept a cycling frame-of-reference, even though I’m usually inside my own little cage of a velomobile.

    Like Doohickey, I try to make eye contact with others and wave often to pedestrians who are usually stunned and staring. They might not be inside my MonkeySphere, but there’s no need to keep them outside, either.

    I was a little disappointed that the conclusion was to believe there is no answer. If everyone believes that, there truly is no solution.

    My answer is that one can certainly expand one’s sphere and I try to do that every day.

    Another way I think this happens is the “pay it forward” concept, which I’ve used on many occasions and perhaps others have applied to me. I carry a patch kit and will stop to repair another rider’s puncture, if at all possible. I don’t mean another rider on a club ride, but that’s not an exclusion either. I’ve patched only two or three tubes in the last five years, but it’s two or three more monkeys in the …sphere.

    “jeje, we’re the monkeys!”

  11. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    Crosswalk enforcement could certainly function as the trigger to change expectations, but direct citizen action could as well. Groups of pedestrians could “reclaim” crosswalks, starting on slower-speed streets, and working their way up over time to faster ones.

    Carol & I took a vacation in western Massachusetts some years back. We flew into Hartford, rented a car, went straight from the terminal onto the freeway, and got off the freeway in Northampton, MA. Within 5 minutes of entering Northampton we knew with certainty that motorists yield to pedestrians there.

    If one did the same from Orlando International coming into Orlando, one would see few pedestrians, and rarely see a motorist yielding. Within an hour or so, one would get the idea that yielding to pedestrians is not done here.

    Bicyclists are often seen as selfish (big groups hogging the road, solo riders running lights, demanding special protections and privileges, etc). What if a group of bicyclists led the charge to change motorist behaviors at crosswalks? I don’t mean doing so ON bikes; I mean doing “crosswalk reclamations” while on foot, but letting everyone know it’s a bicycling group, looking out for the interests of our fellow non-motorized travelers.

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