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Why Can’t More Than Four People Have a Conversation at Once?

Apparently, there exists something called the ‘dinner party problem’ which states that it is difficult to sustain a casual conversation that includes more than four speakers. If a fifth person were to join that conversation, so goes the theory, the conversation would quickly fission into smaller groups. Somebody looked into it, of course. From a story: The question bothered Jaimie Krems, an assistant professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University. Krems had previously studied under Robin Dunbar, the Oxford University evolutionary psychologist who theorized that cohesion in any human social group falls apart once the group reaches 150 — a figure now known as Dunbar’s number. But just as the dynamics of large groups start changing around 150, something also happens to the casual conversations of small groups once they surpass four members. Social psychologists have noted the pattern in group conversations in research stretching back decades. There’s evidence that this four-person limit on conversations has been in place for about as long as humans have been having chatting with one another. Shakespeare rarely allowed more than four speaking characters in any scene; ensemble films rarely have more than four actors interacting at once. But why do we max out at four? In a forthcoming paper in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, Krems and Jason Wilkes offer one theory rooted in evolutionary psychology. Pairs (or “dyads,” in psychology research parlance) are the essential building blocks of a society. Let’s imagine a conversation between four hypothetical humans: you, Chris, Pat, and Taylor. In a four-person conversation, there are six possible pairs of people who can be talking to one another at once. you and Chris, you and Pat, you and Taylor, Chris and Pat, Chris and Taylor, and Pat and Taylor. That’s three pairs you’re part of, and three pairs you’re not. Essentially, you have a role in influencing half of the possible conversations that could be happening in that group. If there are three people in the conversation, there are three possible pairs, only one of which excludes you. If there are five people, there are 10 possible pairs, and the majority — six — don’t include you, which makes it harder to get your point across.

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