Monday, June 8, 2009

In the Land of the Blind...

Have you ever heard of Parkinson's Law?

Well, you should. If you ever were or are part of any organization - be it corporate America, the government or the local Swinger's club - you will have encountered its end result: the ridiculously needless, nonsensical tasks we all loathe.

And what started out half tongue in cheek has recently been scientifically proven: bureaucracies are unstoppable, ever expanding monsters that often exist for their own sake only.

But, what's even more interesting about the inventor of the law, Cyril Northcote Parkinson (even names were manlier back then), are his ideas on optimal group size.

Based on quantitative historical studies on the makeup of England's highest council of state, he concluded that beyond about 20 members, groups become structurally unable to come to consensus.

And, indeed, according to the CIA world fact book the highest executive bodies of most countries have between 13 and 20 members. And, somewhat more mysteriously, there is a particular number of decision-makers that stands out from the trend as being truly, spectacularly bad, tending with alarmingly high probability to lead to deadlock: eight.

It seems like humans like to gather in groups of more than five but less than twenty people. Groups of eight being the only exception.

It's not just committees and governments. Most team sports seem to follow this rule. So does table size at your favorite restaurant.

And I would be damned if there is not a biological reason for it.

Maybe non-surprisingly, social psychologists are all over the "Does size matter?" question when it comes to teamwork. The numbers they come up with vary drastically, yet by-and-large they all fall in the range highlighted above.

As one psychologist explained it to me during a recent dinner conversation:
"It's like we have a preference for groups of about a dozen people.
With groups this size, there will always be a king who is able to rule the crowd.
With larger groups, splinters will form. And each of them will come up with a prince.
And the princes will rival for the position of king. That dynamic is disruptive to the cohesive process."

It doesn't take much to come up with a "just-so" story of adaptations to ideal prehistoric group size in hunter-gatherer societies. But be as it may, this data suggests that humans grant an alpha male a kingdom comprising 5-20 people. Once his following gets larger, they will seek out "more direct" superiors who then become potential threats.

This has important implications to any man working on an improved life style. Whether it is about founding your own company or going out with a bunch of buddies.

Social status is relative.

An alpha in one group might easily get beta-ized in another. If you strive to become "more alpha", you need to take your environment into account (and chose wisely/accordingly).

Life is all about choosing battles. By creating a living environment that abides to the laws of biology you can avoid a lot of conflict.
Know when you are a prince and when you are a king, and the power is all yours.


  1. 11:

    interesting stuff.

    another off-shoot of this that i've often thought about involves the development of groups.

    let's take a hypothetical group of 6 guys. when they go out on the town, each one of them wishes to hook up with the hottest girl that they can possibly get. now, the group won't survive if there is one single guy that gets all the girls. the group will naturally splinter and fracture as the guys who can't get girls relative to the "alpha" will start hanging out with guys that aren't as stiff competition.

    the alpha will be forced to hang out with other alphas because no other guys wish to compete.

    this is a quick example of why like tends to seek like; it's because of competition for attention, resources, and in men's sense, women.

  2. Chuck,

    You raise a valid point. I guess most of us who got on the path of becoming a better man will have lost some friends that couldn't deal with the effects.

    Preferential attachment rules social networks, so alphas and betas might be likely to seek company of their like indeed.

    I believe that there is no such thing as perfectly equal status since any social interaction will have a dominant and a submissive pole. Yet, there is evidence that people of similar status deal with the problem by fluctuating in dominance. This way things get averaged out over time.

    This is one reason why many PUAs fail. They believe that being alpha means to be domineering all the time and they come across as obnoxious, overly aggressive, rowdy, awkward. Ultimately this reveals insecurities rather than demonstrating dominance.

    The alpha is the most relaxed guy in the scene, not the loudest or the most aggressive.

  3. a diminishing returns type of scenario....interesting. i've noted among mixed groups in particular, if it's 50/50 men/women, the men will most often lose their say b/c often only 1 man will voice opposition to the predictably stupid plans of the girls who are prone simply to whim instead of basing it on the reality/past/pertinent information. I hate going out in large mixed group company. Far less is accomplished, segueing anywhere is a fucking chore and a half...just not worth it.

  4. @Benedict:

    Yeah, this constant wavering of girls in these situations is something akin to a giant shit test for the men in the group. A plea for the alpha among them to step up and take the lead. Yet, if someone passes the test and takes things into his hands, they will test him even harder. Not always worth the pivot effect.

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