Skip to content
Adrian Wooldridge

How to Escape the Hell of Bad Meetings

There’s a goldilocks number for every group, one of many insights of evolutionary psychology that can help managers to build successful teams.

Too many drummers can spoil the beat. 

Too many drummers can spoil the beat. 

Photographer: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images North America

The most fundamental questions for all organizations are about numbers. Is there a point when economies of scale are negated by the costs of bureaucracy and alienation? How many people can you admit to a meeting before it becomes a waste of time? What is the optimum size for a committee? Or a panel? Or a board? 

Robin Dunbar is a British psychologist and evolutionary biologist who has been thinking about the question of numbers throughout his career (and who was once accorded one of the highest honors in the scientific world, that of being mentioned in The Big Bang Theory). While studying our nearest biological kin, apes and chimpanzees, he came across the “social brain hypothesis.” What sets primates apart from other mammals are the large, cohesive social groups based on bonded relationships (individuals form close friendships with each other) that they inhabit. Such relationships depend on the ability of animals to figure out how others will behave and how to interact with predicted behavior. That skill requires considerable computational power — in other words, a big brain. The social brain hypothesis dictates that the size of the group that primates form will be limited by the average size of their brains. For humans the group size is 148 — or 150 for convenience.