There are currently 7,198,338,245 people on Earth. That number increased by about 15 as soon as I finished writing that sentence, and because that comma made you pause for half of a second it just increased by another 10. Every single one of those people born will be a person. They’ll be a child, have their first kiss and a favorite movie, maybe even go to summer camp or get married, and eventually die. You may not realize it right now, but you’ll never fully understand this concept. Never. And it’s not your fault.
Think about your best friend. She was a child once. She has a favorite movie and went to summer camp in Maine. You know all of these details about her life because she is, after all, your best friend. Now think about your next three closest friends. Maybe one has never been kissed and one spends her summers working at Hollister. Now think about all of your Facebook friends. How many summer jobs would you have to memorize before you start forgetting? Before you stop caring? How many movies would you have to remember before every Facebook friend literally starts morphing into those faceless gray profile pictures from which they started? Well, there is a real numerical answer to these questions. In 2003, the University of Liverpool conducted a study that tested the complexity of the social lives of monkeys. The study demonstrated that the size of a monkey’s brain determined the maximum amount of monkeys with whom one monkey could have a genuine social relationship. Based on the size of their neocortexes, monkeys reached a maximum of 50 monkey friends per tribe. Monkey neocortexes were then compared to human neocortexes, and our own tribe number was found: 150 (famously called “Dunbar’s Number”). So, after approximately 150 first kisses and favorite movies, your brain physically cannot recall or be concerned about any more.
It’s not that you’re not a mean person! Your brain is just too small.
Dunbar’s Number doesn’t merely account for the people you care about. It accounts for the people who you can actually think of as people. Ever wonder why it’s so weird to see teachers outside of school? The day I saw my middle school English teacher working at a bar in Belmar, NJ was the day nothing made sense anymore. She was always just “Teacher,” existing solely to write on chalkboards and give me homework grades. “Teachers” do not, under any circumstances, work at bars or have real people lives. Obviously. And everyone you mindlessly come in contact with on a daily basis falls under similar categories. They exist to do what they do as you interact with them and nothing more. “The Dude Who Serves You At Chipotle” does just that, but he actually just went through a divorce and lost custody of his child. The cashier at CVS was just accepted to her dream college and watches reruns of Teen Momin her underwear, but you only regard her as “The Girl Who Takes My Money In Exchange For Brita Filters and Chapstick.” Adolf Hitler sang in his church choir, drank coffee in the morning, ate lollipops, crushed on girls, and had dreams at night. You probably feel uncomfortable reading that because I’m uncomfortable writing it, but he was just as much of a person as your best friend is, albeit a disgusting and pathetic excuse for one. Why does acknowledging that even the most evil of mankind possessed basic human facets seem so bizarre? Even acknowledging that a very respected individual—my middle school teacher, for example—possesses them seems bizarre. Like, imagine President Barack Obama on the toilet. He does that.
Maybe you have nothing against your Chipotle server, but the reality is that there’s limited room in your neocortex and your boyfriend already takes his spot. It’s not like we make an effort to be rude to our Chipotle server, but we don’t particularly make an effort to get to know him, either. His purpose is to put chicken and rice in our burritos. Thus, we cannot genuinely care about him. Ask about his personal life, though, and he comes slightly closer to your 150-person tribe. He gains dimension. He becomes a person.
Prior to 2012, the very company for which that server works refused to partner with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a group dedicated to ending agricultural slavery and the exploitation of Floridian farmworkers. The CIW had petitioned Chipotle to enter into the an agreement that would improve wages and working conditions for these farmworkers, all who have homes and favorite foods and memories of their first times falling in love. For six years, Chipotle CEO Steve Ells had responded to these petitions with hostility and disregard, thereby reflecting the intensity with which these farmworkers—or, to Ells, “The Vague Beings Who Work On A Farm”—fall outside of his 150-person tribe. We can’t blame Ells, though. He couldn’t care about them if he tried. And if those farmworkers had decided to poison the crops and sneakily ship them out as part of a revolt against Chipotle, it would just demonstrate how intensely we—the real people who would suffer the real vomit-inducing consequences of crop poisoning—fall outside of their 150-person tribe. In conclusion, a society of decent human beings will never work. We simply can’t care about everyone.
Have you ever read about a catastrophically high number of deaths that occurred in a foreign country as a result of warfare or a factory explosion? Knowing 30,000 civilians died simply wouldn’t tug on your heartstrings as much as knowing your grandmother died. Yes, it’s true that you can’t care for those faces as much as you can care for your grandmother—you don’t know any of them and, conversely, you know your grandmother very well. However, even if you did meet all 30,000 foreigners, you’d stillhave so many people shoved into your neocortex that you couldn’t squeeze even half of those foreigners in. And their deaths still wouldn’t matter as much to you, despite the fact that one human death is no more or less a human death than another. We’d likely feel worse reading about one random named person dying than we would about 30,000, even though they all have names, too. As Joseph Stalin once said, “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.”
Although this might make us seem selfish and horrible, it’s actually saving our lives. Think about how stressed out you’d be if you had to think about the feelings of 30,000 more human beings. It would be absolutely exhausting, and it’s not because you’re lazy or heartless. It’s because you physically can’t do it. Your brain is protecting your thoughts from being controlled by a vast array of strong, multifaceted feelings. The best we can do is recognize that this phenomenon exists. Rationally understanding how people outside of our tribe feel is the only way out of a situation where we can’t emotionally understand how they feel. It may not help us save the world, but it might just help us become better, more sympathetic human beings.