The Mathematical Logic Behind Soap Operas


In response to the last week’s piece (If you are smart, why aren’t you rich?), a couple of readers wrote in wanting to know why do large families in general and large business families in particular, split. Interestingly, this question has been an area of academic research. The British evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has done some interesting work in this area.

The average individual has his or her strongest relationships with five people at any point of time, suggests Dunbar. As Geoffrey West writes in Scale—The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation and Sustainability, in Organisms, Economies, Cities and Companies: “These are the people we are closest to and care most deeply about.” These typically tend to include our parents, spouses or children. They also include close friends or partners (if not spouses).

At the next level, there are around 15 people. These typically tend to be close friends but not the closest ones. At the next level, there around 50 people. As West writes: “[These are] people you might still call friends though you would only rarely invite them to dinner but would like to invite them to a party or gathering. This might consist of coworkers, neighbours down the street, or relatives you don’t see very often.”

The final level has around 150 people with whom we have social contact with. This number (i.e. 150) is also referred to as the Dunbar number (in the name of Robin Dunbar). The question is why is the Dunbar number limited to 150? As West writes: “We simply do not have the computational capacity to manage social relationships effectively beyond this size”. Hence, “increasing the group size beyond this number will result in significantly less social stability, coherence, and connectivity, ultimately lead to its disintegration.”

Dear Reader, you must be wondering by now, what has all this got to do with large families splitting? Allow me to explain.

If you look at Dunbar’s logic explained earlier, at any point of time, an individual can have close and strong relationships with five people. This basically means that an individual can at best be close to two or three siblings and not all of them.

West gives the example of his grandparents’ family and then compares it with that of his family. His grandparents had eight children. This basically meant that there were 10 people in the family. Ten people in the family meant there were 45 different relationships at play at any point of time. (You can do the maths for this, it is fairly simple. If there are two people in a family, there is one relationship. If there are three people in a family, there are three relationships at play. If there are four people in the family, there are six relationships at play and so on).

When there are 45 different relationships at play, obviously everyone cannot possibly get along with everyone else. As West writes: “If these loosely followed a Dunbar pattern where each child was strongly connected to two or three of their siblings in addition to parents, not everyone could love everyone else equally.” There is also the question of time that one needs to invest in maintaining any relationship.

In comparison to West’s grandparents’ family, his family has four members (he, his wife and their two children). This basically means that there were six different relationships at play at any point of time. And chances of managing six relationships are better than manging 45 relationships.

This is precisely why large families split. Even if they don’t split, everyone doesn’t get along with everyone and there are fights and disagreements happening and conspiracies being hatched. TV  serials all over the world make use of this dynamic, brilliantly. And which is why you rarely see a soap opera around a nuclear family. How many disagreements can happen among four people? And how many conspiracies can they hatch up? The audience also relate to these soap operas in their own weird ways and tend to watch them.

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror  on September 13, 2017.