04 April 2010

Monkey Brains

The University of Liverpool did a simple study with profound consequences. They looked at monkey brains.

You see, monkeys hang out in groups. First is the social group, which is the tribe size where you work collectively for resources, ask for monkey favors, and defend each other when attacked. Then there is the social clique, which is the posse of monkeys who let you eat bugs out of their hair.

Researchers observed several kinds of monkeys and the size of their social groups. They also looked at the size of the neocortex in the brain and found a correlation to group size. The largest chimpanzee social group is about 50, with a small group size of 3. Then comes the important part, they looked at the human brain and asked the question, "What is the group size of this animal?" The result: a social group of about 150, and a small group of about 12.

In other studies of human happiness, it has been confirmed that humans are happiest with 6 to 12 good, close friends. Less than 6 is not as fulfilling, and more than 12 makes it hard to make those relationships meaningful and intimate. A study of 1,700 Facebook profiles found that most people had 6 "picture friends" - friends who tagged them in photos.

This analysis of the human brain seems to line up with everybody's experience. Camps, churches, schools, and offices all already passively acknowledge the ideal size of small groups and large social groups. Most people in my experience guessing at how many loose friendships can be maintained by an individual have come up with a number close to 150.

This is really quite significant. It provides clarity of purpose in establishing goals, especially for religious communities. It has long been known that big churches try to think small and personal, while small churches try to think big and focus on growth. In a congregation of 6 thousand, like some mega churches have, adherents often feel less connected to the church and feel isolation. Churches studying the dynamics of growth have shown that if they receive a new member, and that person does not get involved in a small group, they will no longer be in attendance when 2 years have passed. In small churches, everyone tends to feel welcome and important, with a sense of ownership of the processes of the church. The personal relationships get diluted as the group grows past 150 people.

As to the Baha'i Faith, most communities outside of a few large metro areas are less than 150 people. I grew up in a town with about 80 enrolled Baha'is, and I always got the impression that bigger was better. Someday people dreamed of having enough funds and attendance to buy a Baha'i Center to use for meetings. That would be the sign that success was being achieved. Then I moved to Portland where enrolled Baha'is exceeded 300. Feast was held at the Baha'i center, which was an hour's drive from certain parts of the city, and where attendance was usually between 50 to 80. A microphone had to be used to speak to the group. My perception of success quickly changed, and I realized that the challenges existing in Portland would soon come upon every other Baha'i community out there, given enough time.

Just a few years before I moved to Portland, the community there began to change. Groups of Baha'i communities were formed into clusters, but Portland remained a single cluster. This introduced some initial confusion, but it was quickly understood that the intention was to break it up into smaller pieces. Very soon some experimental Feasts were held in about 5 areas, with some initial complaining from those who enjoyed the camaraderie of large groups. The overall attendance went up, and with it so did contributions to the Baha'i Fund. People met in groups of about 15, made much more personal connections with those that they lived near, and saw opportunities for service. Those small groups began to act like the small churches, they began to focus on growth. Pretty soon Portland was making every other Feast a centralized area one, then after a few years every third Feast was centralized, and all others decentralized. Other cities like New York and Phoenix have already moved to only neighborhood level Feast and Holy Day gatherings, only using the Baha'i Center for Cluster Reflection Meetings every 3-4 months.

The Baha'i summer schools in Oregon are experiencing a similar phenomenon. For the last 30 years Badasht has been a one-week family summer gathering of 150 people. That number happens to be the maximum attendance for the grounds being used. Less than that would have not been enough people to feel like a community, and more than that would have made it increasingly difficult to make any personal connections with fellow campers. Through a fluke, Badasht was forced to keep its attendance to the perfect number of people, and the camp has been an extremely successful tool for the Oregon Baha'i community.

Baha'is all over the world are trying to figure out the dynamics of growth. To that end, a training institute has been put into effect to systematically consolidate and train seekers, new agencies have been developed to facilitate cycles of growth that include expansion and consolidation, and overall the results have been positive, not just in numbers of people accepting Baha'u'llah and joining the community, but in their participation in training and service. These activities being encouraged have focused on small groups, ideally 6-12, where more intimate personal relationships can form.

Now back to monkey brains. Baha'i communities all over the world are going to hit the same challenge at about the same time, but if the dynamics of social groups is understood, there won't be much of a problem. Success will not be achieved by always getting bigger; we have a monkey brain that can only handle being in a social group of 150, and finds true happiness in a group of 6-12 intimate friends. Success will be achieved by growing communities that continually divide as they grow, while encouraging small groups.

With that in mind, Baha'i Centers really don't play much of a part, at least not right now. In all the major cities that have them; San Francisco, New York, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Bellevue, their use has significantly dropped off as the focus has changed to neighborhood activities, decentralized children's classes, and sector Feasts. The cost and liability is huge for a building that is only used once or twice a week. It would be much more economical to just rent a facility a few times a year for the large gatherings of Cluster Reflection Meetings and annual elections. In fact, having a Baha'i Center has been a curse to many communities, who have difficulty decentralizing because they feel they need to get use out of a building that they just paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for.

It seems funny now that my image of success went from having a Baha'i Center, to not having one.


  1. Interesting post, thanks for sharing!
    Looks like bahai centres in major US cities resemble the national conference centre of the bahais of the Netherlands called De Poort. That runs primarily on other groups renting it for programs but also hosts national convention, summer school and other meetings of the bahai community. Perhaps it is feasible to turn some US bahai centres into centres that can be rented by other groups. De Poort in the Netherlands in this way is a 'silent teacher'. Cheers, Martijn

  2. Nice post. It describes the dynamics in Albuquerque very well. When I moved there in 2001, we had a small Baha'i center that could hold about 50-100 people. In about 2003, we bought a very big center that could hold probably about 200-300 at full capacity for multiple events. This was right around the time that the vision of the five year plan was just being realized, and as you describe, it probably make decentralization more difficult.

  3. I think if we continue to think like monkeys then we'll be just as successful as monkeys. If you split up in groups before you have a cohesive fire started somewhere then those groups will fizzle out. Youth need to feel important and energized. They feel stronger when they have other youth around, and continually meet new youth in the baha'i setting. If they are stuck with 6 youth then they will become bored and move on to something else. A community that has a goal to bring unity to the world will feel discouraged if few people attend events. If study circles are the only thing you have going on don't expect to retain the "moving force" of your community. If your community doesn't feel like a community, then don't expect families to enter and stay. The most successful religious groups in the US are those that have a strong dynamic event open to all on a weekly basis, while at the same time operating and encouraging members to participate in smaller activities as well. Both are necessary if you actually want to see real growth. Baha'i centers can be completely useful. Weekly centralized events that uplift can more easily encourage members to participate in the various other events going on throughout the community. Success isn't in division. Success is in how happy people are, how good a community is, and how much of an affect it is having on the broader community. The only way splitting is going to do anything is if each part that splits is completely dynamic and strong. But without anything else to inspire the parts that are splitting you can expect a fizzling out. Without centralized youth activities you can expect the "moving force" of the community to fade away. And ultimately you can expect people in society to once again live like monkeys.

  4. This is a fascinating topic. Community growth is not just a straightforward matter of adding numbers. As communities grow so different dynamics come into play. One risk of increasing the size of the community without at the same time increasing its social complexity and differentiation (none of which need necessarily work against the community's unity) is that the majority of community members become a "congregation", no longer actively engaged in shaping the life of the community. This is clearly not what the Universal House of Justice wants. Indeed, the House of Justice is aware of this and is already making provision for zonal Feasts in larger communities in the UK, for example.

    Another risk of the "congregational" model of community is the development of elites who run the community on the one hand, and a relatively large and passive body of people who respond to instructions from on high (or not, as the case may be).

    Since the role of the Baha'i administration is to empower and canalize individual initiative, it is clearly important for larger communities to have smaller "monkey sized" social groups, such as teaching teams, neighbourhood Feasts, and so on, so that people have places where they can get to know others in greater depth. And this also impacts on the electoral process, given that we should vote for those whose qualifications for service on the institutions we know well enough to be able to vote in all honesty and in the right spirit.

  5. Regarding youth activities, Portland was a dead zone for youth for years and years. It was only in the last few years with the focus on junior youth that some activity has happened. Having a large congregation, in practice, didn't allow youth to develop. Also, keep in mind the size of the groups I'm talking about, taking a group of 300 and dividing it into groups of 50 is not making a fire die out. That's the whole point, failing to break up was stifling growth.

  6. To deny that fires die out as a result of breaking up is to deny reality. In some cases dividing into smaller groups could work if each group consists of the right components to keep them alive. But, overall, most communities aren't strong enough to withstand these sorts of divisions, unless a cohesive consistent activity is maintained to keep people interested. In my own experience the manner in which communities have carried out the five year plan has done little more than cause alienation, a loss of the youth dynamic, and general disinterest in the community. Unless the emotional needs of the people are met the goals of the community won't be attained. And the energy of large groups and the intimacy of small groups are both necessary for a successful community. The fact that communities of 50 active members are trying to divide into smaller groups is just killing the community dynamic. If you have 300 active members then find ways to split into more intimate settings, but keep a consistent community dynamic as well, whatever that may be. But for those who have fewer people, which is almost every community, don't divide to the degree that will only result in a dying community dynamic. If we are to have success, then we must be honest with ourselves and recognize not only the few successes, but also the many failures.

  7. Anonymous, I tend to agree with you, but you are clearly not understanding what I've said. Look at my last comment, I say that groups of 300 should break up into groups of 50, then you said that groups of 50 are trying to divide into smaller groups. Your summary of my comment is wrong, and if someone suggested that groups of 50 should break up, then I would join you in arguing against it. I'm sorry that you've had a bad experience with whatever Baha'i community you're in. I would recommend reading over Paul Lample's new book, "Revelation and Social Reality", which was chosen by the USNSA to be the basis of themes at summer schools. Lample talks very honestly and critically about the developments of the past 15 years.

  8. whatever your last post said your initial post said you went from 60-80 to groups of 15, i'm in agreement with anonymous on this issue, decentralization is envisioned by the house as a consequence of growth, not a catalyst for growth, a pragmatic response to time/travel constraints or outgrowing our space, and it's the institution of the appointed that seems to be pushing the opposite agenda/paradigm with tremendous efficiency throughout the land... monkey see, monkey do, as the saying goes... we're dismantling the faith and clapping away the whole time, like a modern baha'i parody of the emperor's royal clothes, applauding ourselves for our radical non-congregationalism... how do we hold ourselves out as a model to the world for uniting the world when we think we can sustain a group of more than 150 people? re-read the section of developing distinctive baha'i communities on where to have feast, re-read all the guidance on decentralization - the actual guidance from the elected institutions, and then maybe you'll have a less self-congratulatory tone the next time you take this up... that aura of triumphalism we love to assume, even when we're goofing it up... most of the instances i've seen involve reinforcing existing patterns of segregation that we're supposed to avoid, and essentially we're just turning feast into another one of the grass-roots core activities, with nothing to replace feast as the time the community gets together... one new believer in my community commented that he felt as though he'd joined a beautiful religion that was dying out, since he never was presented with a whole or vibrant community... it's not an all or nothing model, baha'i's shouldn't take things to such extremes...

  9. I see what you mean, there are two different numbers being floated, one is the number of enrolled and the other is Feast attendance. The community I was referring to had about 300 enrolled, 150 active, and Feast attendance was about 70 give or take. The Baha'i center was an hour from certain parts of the city. After breaking up into 7 areas, you end up with roughly 40 enrolled, 20 active, and Feast attendance of about 15. That means overall attendance actually went up noticeably, especially in the outlying areas. So did Fund contributions, which usually follow attendance. A side effect of breaking up was that people became more intimate with Baha'is living close-by, and it gave a further boost to non-Feast related activities. It also became more friendly to new Baha'is, because they didn't feel lost in a crowd. In this case decentralizing was a catalyst for growth, but this is relative to the size and geography of any given community.