Writers’ Tricks and Anthropology

 Every once and a while you find a great factoid that helps your writing.  Usually it’s a nugget about style and technique, the sort of thing that fills Strunk and White, or Fowler.  Other times you stumble across the perfect bit of history in your research to set the scene for the period you’re writing about.  (This happened to me in reverse once.  I was writing a book about baseball in the old west.  Baseball, my source intoned, was never played by cowboys.  So I ignored it and kept writing.) 

And then sometimes you learn something about human nature you can use again and again. 

This happened to me while reading John Reader’ Africa: A Biography of a Continent.  A wonderful book, one I highly recommend for anyone interested in an overview of humanity’s history in Africa.  But the piece of information I picked up in it had nothing to do with Africa at all.  Instead it was a short section about social interaction in primates.  I don’t remember Reader’s source (and I don’t own a copy of the book, so I can’t check), but what I do remember is how the section discussed the relationship between primate brain size and socialization.  The bigger the brain, the more peers a given primate can interact with at a time.  For lemurs the number was two, for chimpanzees it was three, and for humans it was six.  (Don’t hold me to anything but the human number.  I don’t write novels about lemurs or chimpanzees.) 

There’s an easy way to test this.  The next time you’re at a large social gathering, watch the crowd.  Are there any groups of people talking larger than six?  I doubt it.  If there are, then most of the people are probably just listening to one or two people talk.  Or, if you’re in a group of five or six yourself, watch what happens if one or two more people decide to join you.  The group will quickly break down into two smaller groups.  Our brains really can’t handle anything more than six. 

It’s a very cool idea, and I keep it in the back of my mind when I write.  Four, five, or six people can talk about something with everyone having the chance to speak, but make the group any larger and it either splits up or turns into a lecture.  So I write my large group scenes accordingly.  And writing large groups having a conversation is hard enough that any sort of guideline is something to grab and hold. 

Anyone else out there have this kind of anthropological trick up their sleeve? 

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  1. 1. Daemon

    I recall a very similar study that correlated brain size to the total number of individuals a given primate would recognize individually, and treat as “us”… that is to say the maximum size of their social group.

    As I recall it was suggested that this may be the reason that we don’t even try to really interact with the vast majority of the people we meet, and deal with them as sort of abstractions, rather than dealing with every single person as an individual.

  2. 2. Lydia Sharp

    There are situations that require more, but as a general rule, I try not to include more than three to four people in any single conversation (in writing, that is) or else it gets confusing and frustrating. And usually, it’s only two.

    The largest group conversation I’ve written had seven people seated at a dinner table. Only three people were fully engaged in the conversation, while the other four just popped in from time to time, or displayed an action worth noting. And even that was difficult…especially when someone said or did something that everyone else had to react to.

    Something I learned in a high school psychology course was that people can only remember a sequence of ten things before their brain kicks out the first thing to replace it with another. If you look at any of the ID codes that we use today, nothing is more than ten digits. Phone # (10), SS# (9), DL# (8), birthday (4-6), street address (3-5). And if you can relate it to something personal, it’s even more memorable. I used this theory to create believable passwords in my first novel.

  3. 3. S.C. Butler

    Daemon – Interesting. I’ve never heard of there being a limit on the number of other people we can recognize as individuals. Though lately I am losing my memory for faces.

    Lydia – And I have trouble remembering even seven digits. Cool way to make up a password system, though.

  4. 4. Bill Weinberger

    Interesting rule of thumb. I think I’ll have to file that away with the one I learned about remembering and recognizing items in lists. It said that the optimum number is 7 (plus or minus 2). The particular context is for computer menus and such, but it seems to fit with the other rules listed here. Thanks for the tip!

Author Information

S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.

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