For the perfect dinner party, the best number of guests is a multiple of four.
According to an expert in the field of social interaction, four is the maximum number of people who can have a successful conversation.
The rule of four can be seen in Shakespeare plays, the first Sex and the City movie, with its four female best friend characters, and even the rom-com Love Actually.
Professor Robin Dunbar, who emphasizes the number of conversations in his recent book The Social Brain, has seen it repeatedly in groups of people, everywhere from the park to the pub, when people have been studied in these environments.
He says we can only keep in mind the mental states of five people at a time, including our own.
It can be a dilemma if you want to be the host with the most – how many guests do you invite to dinner to make it the perfect night? (stock image)
So any attempt at conversation within a larger group is doomed to become a “lecture,” with one or two people courting, while the rest often wait for their chance to break up into a smaller group.
That’s why inviting four people, or eight, or 12, to a dinner party can be the best strategy to make sure everyone has a good time.
Professor Dunbar raised the gold conversation number of four at the Cheltenham Science Festival (SUBS – pls keep) where he said: ‘You can’t be talking to more than four people at a time.
“If a fifth person joins in, it breaks up. Just look at a party or a reception.’
Afterwards, he said, “This is why dinner parties and wedding reception tables are often so large.
“Eight people is better, because of the limits of what you can handle in your brain and also whether you can hear the person across the table.”
Shakespeare tended to involve four people in a conversation at a time, or three if people were gossiping about someone else who wasn’t present.
This allowed the viewer watching the action to track the five maximum mental states they can keep in mind: their own, the mental states of the three characters, and the person they were talking about.
Professor Robin Dunbar (pictured) emphasizes the limit on the number of conversations in his recent book The Social Brain
An example of Professor Dunbar is the opening scene of Hamlet, where three men discuss the alarming appearance of the ghost of Hamlet’s father.
But the psychologist also found the average maximum of four people in a conversation within a study of movies like Sex and the City, Love Actually, Pride and Prejudice, and A League of Their Own.
The theory is similar to the famous Dunbar number, which he also proposed, which says that people can maintain only 150 meaningful social relationships and will have up to five close friends and family in their inner circle.
In his book The Social Brain, he states, “There is a very strict limit to the size of four-person conversations, after which they devolve into lectures dominated by one or two very powerful individuals.”
The book adds, “An individual’s share of speaking time decreases rapidly as the number of people in the conversation increases.
“If you keep being prevented from having your say, you will inevitably lose interest and look for a smaller conversation where you can have your say.”
Professor Dunbar verified his conversational limit with studies in which researchers counted groups of people talking to each other in locations such as sidewalks, restaurants and pubs.
This study also found that people rarely laugh together in groups larger than four people.
He will then test whether it applies to runners and cycling groups.