Tag Archives: psychology

What’s it like to teach psychology?⤴

from @ Memory & Education Blog - Jonathan Firth

My own school psychology textbooks, including books for the Higher and GCSE courses. There are also a wide range of resources for A-Level Psychology.

I’ve been teaching Psychology at secondary school level for almost two decades. This article discusses routes into teaching the subject. It has a particular focus on the school system here in Scotland, but most of the points are relevant to other settings too.

I became interested in teaching when I was an undergraduate, through the experience of giving talks to my Honours class and leading small seminars – I found that I enjoyed explaining concepts and research to others. If you also enjoy working with others and sharing your knowledge of Psychology, perhaps you should consider a career as a school psychology teacher or college lecturer. I will try to explain in simple terms how best to follow these paths, and what might be involved.

Changing Routes into school teaching

It used to be very difficult to get into Psychology teaching at school level. To teach in Scotland, it is necessary to complete a teaching diploma and be accredited by the General Teaching Council, Scotland (GTCS), and historically, this proved to be something of a barrier for graduates with a single honours degree in Psychology. Until recently there was no professional graduate diploma in education (PGDE) in the subject in Scotland; some psychology graduates trained as a primary teachers, though they tend to stay in the primary sector once they have started out there, rather than moving to secondary where the discipline is taught as a discrete subject.

In contrast, those with a joint honours degree combining it with a traditional ‘school’ subject (e.g. biology) had the option of training in the other subject, with a view to teaching Psychology it once they were actually in a school. Indeed, it was easier (and much more common) not to have a degree in Psychology at all, but instead to add it to an existing teaching qualification in another subject as part of the professional registration process (which only requires 2 years of university study in psychology).

This situation made it harder for psychology specialists to enter the profession, and fortunately it is now changing. For the past few years there have been a small number of funded teacher training posts specifically in Psychology or Social Sciences south of the border, and since 2016, the University of Strathclyde has run Scotland’s first – and so far, only – PGDE in Secondary Psychology.

The FE sector

The college sector has a longer tradition of psychology teaching, and there is a well-established teacher education course called the TQFE (teaching qualification in further education) available. Some colleges may be willing to employ psychology graduates without this and allow them to train on the job, especially if they already have classroom experience.

It is worth noting, too, that many college lecturers in Scotland deliver Psychology in secondary schools, going out weekly to deliver the N5 and Higher to schools who do not have their own psychology departments. In some cases, it is the pupils that travel to college once or twice a week. Because of this crossover between the sectors, it would be an advantage for lecturers to be GTCS registered as described above. In fact, I know of some college staff whose entire teaching timetable consists of school visits.

Nature of the courses

If you didn’t do Psychology at school, you may wonder what exactly is taught on a school psychology course. Actually, even if you did, it is likely to have changed by now! New and much changed versions of the popular Higher, International Baccalaureate, GCSE and A-Level courses have all recently been launched.

In terms of the Higher, there is a big focus on research. 33% of the grade is awarded for an individual research project which is written up in the same format as reports at university. The exam also tests research methods, although it does so in the context of questions on topic areas, and inferential statistics are optional at this level. Mandatory topics include ‘conformity & obedience’, and ‘sleep & dreams’, and learners need to be aware of different theoretical approaches such as the biological and cognitive perspectives. Naturally, theories and research evidence are covered, though fewer than at undergraduate level, and there is more of an emphasis on classic studies than recent work. Two optional topics can be chosen; prejudice, relationships and memory are popular choices. The National 5 course follows the same structure, though the level of demand is lower and the option topics are different.

The A-Level is essentially similar, but as a 2-year course it is more demanding than the Higher. Statistical tests are integral to the A-Level, and it includes more topics and a greater emphasis on approaches (e.g. the behaviourist approach) and debates (e.g. nature vs. nurture). It also places more emphasis on the exam – the exam boards south of the border controversially dropped their project work from the syllabus a number of years ago. GCSE Psychology is less conceptual and more content-focused, with a really good range of topics (note that topics and course structure for both A-Level and GCSE vary depending on the exam board).

Most college lecturers in Scotland deliver the HNC or HND in Social Sciences (Higher National Certificate/Diploma – equivalent in level to 1st year or 2nd year of a degree respectively), including elements of Psychology but also of disciplines such as Politics and Sociology. Some have their own degree programmes, too.

As a new teacher, it can be hard to get up to speed on the various theories and research covered in school courses. A degree is an excellent foundation, but there will be content that you haven’t covered since 1st year, if at all. You may also be in the position of having to create a lot of teaching materials initially; I set up a school course from scratch and it was a tough couple of years at the start, but became much easier once things were up and running. Which brings me on to…

Life as a psychology teacher

Networking and sharing resources are always helpful in education, but are particularly important when if you are the only teacher of the subject in your school (and many schools have only one psychology teacher, or two at the most). Over the past couple of years, a group of over 200 psychology teachers and lecturers in Scotland have established an email network, asking each other questions and providing peer support. We share resources directly via email, Dropbox, and Google Drive. YouTube is great for clips of psychology experiments or relevant TED talks, and there are textbooks for all of the major courses (including my own for GCSE and Higher). The British Psychological Society is also supportive, offering free membership and other resources to school departments.

There are also regular conferences. A UK-wide organisation called the Association for the Teaching of Psychology holds a large conference every summer; it has a Scottish branch which runs its own events, and there is also a Europe-wide ‘confederation’ of psychology teacher associations from different countries with a biannual conference.

I have learned a lot from working as an exam marker, both from talking to experienced staff at marker events and from reading students’ work on the exam scripts themselves! There is always something new which can stimulate ideas for your own teaching.

Life as a school psychology teacher can become very exam-focused. With most classes sitting the exams in May or June, the year revolves around prelims, coursework and the exams themselves. However, some schools have begun to introduce the subject to younger years, which will lead to more variety for the teacher, and a better foundation for the learners. Hopefully it will eventually become the norm for Psychology to be a part of the curriculum right from S1.

Prospects for the subject

For now, Psychology remains a relatively small subject in Scotland – in the top 20 of subjects in terms of number of Higher candidates with around 4000 entries annually, and uncommon at earlier stages of school. However there is huge potential for it to expand; the A-Level is the 4th largest subject in terms of entries, with only Maths, English and Biology recording higher numbers.

The main reason for the difference north of the border is that fewer schools offer it, partly because it is newer, but again this is changing, with graduates from the Strathclyde PGDE pioneering the subject in several schools who had not offered it before. If Psychology was on offer in every school in the country, the Higher could easily be studied by over double the current number of candidates. I have seen the N5 course being newly launched in a number of schools over recently years, and proving very popular. All of this suggests that there will be many more opportunities for new teachers in years to come.

It is perhaps surprising that there isn’t an Advanced Higher qualification in psychology – available in all other subjects of comparable size – particularly as the subject tends to be (in my view, wrongly) viewed as a sixth-year subject. It would be good to see SQA introduce this in the future; I have had many students who would like to study Psychology but could not, either because they had already done the Higher in S5 and there was no course to move on to in S6, or because their university conditions required Advanced Highers only. A small number of centres offer A-Level in S6, but this comes with logistical difficulties.

If Psychology is taught to 5th and 6th year school pupils, why stop there? As noted above, some schools are now offering the subject to 3rd and 4th year pupils, and in the future I’d also like to see Psychology taught to even younger pupils too, including at primary. This could make use of a ‘psychology for children’ approach (analogous to a well-established ‘philosophy for children’ programme).

Indeed, psychology can benefit school learners at all stages. I’d love to see the subject develop and be properly recognised throughout the curriculum – and enthusiastic generation of new teachers will play a key role in that process.

An earlier version of this article appeared as a guest article in the University of St Andrews’ “Maze” magazine for students.

Also on this blog:

Psychology as a school subject – what are the benefits?

Psychology – background reading list.

Psychology – background reading list⤴

from @ Memory & Education Blog - Jonathan Firth

What should you read to prime yourself for further study in Psychology? Image via Pixabay.

I’m often asked by new or prospective Psychology students (or their parents) if I can recommend some interest-based reading to extend their understanding or prepare for a degree. Here are a few options, all of which are chosen to be interesting, easy to read, and very relevant to studying Psychology or related disciplines.

They vary a lot in their style and authorship (some by researchers, other by journalists and the like), and I certainly don’t endorse everything that they say, but they are all interesting, well-written, and collectively would give a useful overview of the subject. In alphabetical order…

Adventures in memory: The science and secrets of remembering and forgetting by Hilde Østby & Ylva Østby

A really well-written exploration of the processes and biology behind human memory.

Children’s minds by Margaret Donaldson

Not a recent work (1979), but a short and easy read, providing an excellent primer for the study of developmental psychology.

Elephants on acid: And other bizarre experiments by Alex Boese

Has anyone ever tried to learn memories digestively, or transplant animals’ brains? Apparently so. A collection of fascinating research studies, some disturbing but others surprisingly mainstream.

Freedom of mind: Helping loved ones leave controlling people, cults, and beliefs by Steven Hassan

Hassan is not a psychologist, but he does know a hell of a lot about cults, and he makes some insightful links between their methods of mind control and classic research from social psychology.

Games people play: The psychology of human relationships by Eric Berne

A weird but compelling analysis of human relationships in terms of trying to get a payoff from social games.

The Lucifer effect: How good people turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo

Zimbardo is an eminent social psychologist, best known for running the Stanford prison experiment. This book explores the factors behind harmful and abusive behaviour.

The man who mistook his wife for a hat by Oliver Sacks

Perhaps more neuroscience than psychology, this nevertheless provides insights into many forms of disordered or unusual behaviour, and is wonderfully written, too. A great primer ahead of studying psychopathology.

Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential by Carol Dweck

The pop-sci title can be off-putting, as can the ubiquitous ‘growth mindset’ posters seen in every school nowadays, but Dweck’s research and analysis are still well worth reading about and understanding.

Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

This book helped to a launch the field of ‘behavioural economics’, bringing psychology and economics closer together. The key idea is that behaviour change can be more effectively motivated by making choices more convenient than by offering rewards and punishments.

Quiet by Susan Cain

I’m not always the biggest fan of personality psychology, but this book has a profound insight - the way so much of the world is set up for the benefit of the extravert majority.

Quirkology: The curious science of everyday lives by Richard Wiseman

Wiseman is a psychologist and a great communicator. All of his books are good reads. I enjoyed this one due to its broad scope, touching on a great many everyday behaviours and linking them to research.

Proust and the squid: The story and science of the reading brain by Maryanne Wolf

What happens when we read? As well as being relevant to educational psychology and children’s development, this book has insights that will be useful for studying perception and working memory.

Sapiens: A brief history of humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

No student should start a degree in Psychology without a basic understanding of human origins! Harari’s book is clear and up to date.

Thinking, fast & slow by Daniel Kahneman

In some ways, one of the harder reads on this list, but certainly one of the most fascinating in terms of its insights into a research career that led to groundbreaking insights into how flawed everyday thinking can be.

What the dog saw by Malcolm Gladwell

A collections of short articles. Gladwell isn’t a psychologist but he’s a superb thinker and writer, and many of these topics are highly relevant to applied psychology, such as the question of whether job interviews actually work. His book ‘Outliers’ is also excellent, focusing on what makes some people exceptional performers.

When: The scientific secrets of perfect timing by Daniel Pink

A highly readable book, all about how we perform better at certain times of day (that might sound obvious, but did you know that there are particular times of day best suited to creative or analytical work?) A useful primer for biological psychology and the study of sleep.

Hopefully this provides a useful primer for anyone just starting out in Psychology, or wishing to return to it. It doesn’t include many ‘classics’ - such as the works of John Bowlby or William James. These are certainly important reads, but perhaps (I think) easier to tackle after first establishing an idea of what the subject as a whole is all about (and perhaps after reading a primer on the history and philosophy of the subject, such as ‘A Brief History of Psychology’ by Michael Wertheimer).

I may, at some point, follow up with a list of suggested books about the psychology of education!

What did memory evolve to do?⤴

from @ Memory & Education Blog - Jonathan Firth

It is thought that most of human evolution took place on a grasslands environment, but how does that affect learning and memory today? Image by Diana Robinson. 

It is thought that most of human evolution took place on a grasslands environment, but how does that affect learning and memory today? Image by Diana Robinson

Humans have evolved over the course of millions of years. Since we last shared a common ancestors with chimpanzees more than 6 million years ago (White et al, 2009), a number of hominin species have evolved - most, of course, have died out (as recently as 100,000 years ago, 4-5 homo species existed concurrently).

For most of this time, our ancestors and near relatives probably lived in grasslands environments, hunting and gathering. This environment has shaped our physical bodies as well as our behaviour - from our appetite for fatty and sweet foods, to our large brains which facilitate cooperation and interactions in large tribes.

Role of evolution in memory

Beyond a general acknowledgement that our brains and cognitive abilities are the product of evolution, human memory research has largely ignored our evolutionary history, focusing on short-term processing (see Bahrick, 2005) and using tasks which take little account of the context in which things are encountered in the real world.

An important advance was made when James Nairne and colleagues conducted an experiment demonstrating that people remember information better when they process it in a grasslands scenario. In an ingenious study, participants were shown a list of words such as truck, juice, chair and sword and were then asked to rate how relevant these objects were to the following scenario:

Remarkably, in a later surprise test, participants remembered the words significantly better having thought about them in this context compared to the other conditions used in the experiment - one of which involved a moving house scenario, and the other required participants simply to think about the pleasantness of the word (a standard memory intervention which promotes deep processing).

If this sounds like a fluke, the effect has been replicated several times and by many different researchers; other comparison scenarios have been tried - for example a bank robbery (Kang et al, 2008), zombies in the city (Soderstrom & McCabe, 2011), and even an 'in the afterlife' scenario (Röer et al, 2013) - but none have proved superior or even equal in promoting recall of a set of items.

Is this truly 'survival processing'?

A simple but very general question arises from this work - assuming that our evolution has prepared us to do certain things better than others, how specific are these abilities? Have we really been hard-wired to process grasslands survival situations better than other situations in a way that affects all of human memory today?

Alternatively, is the grasslands research scenario somehow drawing on a more general aspect of memory that the other scenarios fail to tap into?

My reading of the research literature so far gives the impression that many researchers are trying their best to demonstrate the latter. Three particularly interesting possibilities include:

- It causes us to plan more more than other scenarios, and planning leads to better encoding to memory (Klein, 2014).

- It causes us to encode items more richly (Bell et al, 2015). Elaborative encoding is well known to benefit long-memory - which, after all, is based on making meaningful connections.

- It allows for more creative thinking in terms of how the objects are used. In keeping with this possibility, Wilson (2016) found that a grasslands scenario was also better at promoting creative thinking about object uses than any of the other widely used comparison conditions. If we think creatively about something, we may well remember it better due to the generation effect.

The exact variables at play are still under investigation, and it could be a combination of these factors - the grasslands scenario may promote more creative, future-focused and meaningful thought processes. It is curious, however, how no other scenario has so far proved to be comparably successful in boosting memory - at least with the original tasks and materials.

What does this mean for education?

As a relatively new area of research, survival processing has not yet had a significant impact on education, but it does have potential. With further testing, a set of principles could be established, allowing classroom activities to be designed to incorporate elements of risk/danger, future planning, creativity, etc.

Survival processing is not the only possible effect of evolution on memory that could impact on education. For example, we also remember animals better than inanimate objects - an effect which has been trialled for use in the learning of language vocabulary (Nairne, 2016).

More broadly, many of the most robust findings from the study of memory make perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective. The spacing effect, for example, fits with the idea that any animal needs to deal with a one-off problem, but needn't waste mental resources storing the responses long-term. In contrast, if something happens periodically with time gaps in between - a type of food that grows seasonally, migrating predators or occasional floods, for example - the adaptive response is to create a more lasting mental record of any any relevant details as well as successful responses that we have previously used.

Similarly, the perspective that students learn better if tasks connect to their interests and social context makes a lot of sense from a survival point of view (at least for social species such as our own), as does the idea that interleaving our learning - something that would happen a lot in the natural world - is advantageous in the 'inductive learning' of patterns and rules.

The classic Zeigarnik effect - incomplete tasks being better remembered than complete ones - also fits well with a scenario where an unfinished task could be a matter of life or death.

Clearly, we can't deliver entire school courses via a grasslands scenario like the one described above. We could, however, pay more attention to the ways in which memory has evolved to work, and establish ways of building these principles into classroom tasks.


Bahrick, H. P. (2005). The long-term neglect of long-term memory: Reasons and remedies. In A.F. Healy (Ed.), Experimental Cognitive Psychology and its Applications. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Bell, R., Röer, J.P. & Buchner, A. (2015) Adaptive Memory: Thinking about function. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory & Cognition, 41, 1038 – 1048 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xlm0000066

Kang, S. H., McDermott, K. B., & Cohen, S. M. (2008). The mnemonic advantage of processing fitness-relevant information. Memory & Cognition, 36(6), 1151-1156.

Klein, S.B. (2014). Evolution, memory and the role of self-referrant recall in planning for the future. In B.L. Schwarz, M.L. Howe, M.P. Toglia and H. Otgaar (Eds.) What is Adaptive about Adaptive Memory? pp. 11-34. Oxford: OUP.

Nairne, J. S. (2016). Adaptive Memory: Fitness-Relevant “Tunings” Help Drive Learning and Remembering. In D.C. Geary & D.B. Berch (Eds), Evolutionary Perspectives on Child Development and Education (pp. 251-269). New York: Springer.

Nairne, J. S., Thompson, S. R., & Pandeirada, J. N. (2007). Adaptive memory: survival processing enhances retention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 33(2), 263.

Röer, J. P., Bell, R., & Buchner, A. (2013). Is the survival-processing memory advantage due to richness of encoding?. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 39(4), 1294.

Soderstrom, N. C., & McCabe, D. P. (2011). Are survival processing memory advantages based on ancestral priorities?. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18(3), 564-569.

White, T. D., Asfaw, B., Beyene, Y., Haile-Selassie, Y., Lovejoy, C. O., Suwa, G., & WoldeGabriel, G. (2009). Ardipithecus ramidus and the paleobiology of early hominids. Science, 326(5949), 64-86.

Wilson, S. (2016). Divergent thinking in the grasslands: thinking about object function in the context of a grassland survival scenario elicits more alternate uses than control scenarios. Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 1-13.

Memory in education – a mission statement⤴

from @ Memory & Education Blog - Jonathan Firth

Most students take notes during lessons, but are they adding information to memory? Image by Nick Olejniczak

Most students take notes during lessons, but are they adding information to memory? Image by Nick Olejniczak

I believe that memory is very important in education. This might seem obvious - of course children and students need to remember things. Perhaps it also seems threatening - reducing education to mere passive memorisation?

I don’t think so.

In my view, improving how we use memory is not threatening because remembering is essential regardless of your view of how teaching should be done, or what the syllabus should consist of. Whether you are talking about lectures or discovery learning, a minimum requirement is that the pupils retain some of the information that you have been teaching, and develop skills and understanding over the long-term.

Indeed, educational approaches tend to be judged, at least in part, according to whether people remember anything in terms of their performance on tasks (real or artificial) or tests at a later date. As a learner, a class might be a lot of fun, but I would ask myself whether it was a worthwhile use of my time if I later couldn’t remember anything about it.

From a psychology or neuroscience perspective, we are talking about encoding facts, skills and schema knowledge that is retained over the long-term. This learning is represented in the physical brain by changes to neural structure. There is no learning without these things happening!

Perhaps memory can seem to be a threat because it appears reductive - breaking education down to a list of testable facts. But actually, this may just be a matter of definition; cognitive psychology takes a broader view of memory than that used in everyday speech, and includes any change in behaviour or thinking. This could include developing our creative skills, for example, or our ability to write an essay. There are, of course, various different types of memory - memory for a fact, an experience, a task, and so on. But all of them require, on some level, that the learner takes something in, and that it persists for long enough to affect their future actions and/or thoughts.

I would agree that too much of what currently passes for education is founded on shallow memorisation - much of what is crammed for exams is swiftly forgotten, particularly if not well understood to begin with. But this is exactly where research can come in - by telling us how to make learning last.

As for the role of memory being obvious, well… Perhaps something so fundamental should be seen as obvious, but as such it is easily ignored and neglected. I’d argue that the role of memory is not prominent in current educational debates, and plays too small a role (if any) in teacher training and CPD.

When we talk about improving education, we are essentially saying that we want pupils to do better at maths, science, languages, social science etc, in a way that will allow them to:

  1. pass exams
  2. retain skills that they can use in future

This means that they need to retain key facts (such as what hydrogen is) and skills (such as how to multiply two fractions) for long enough not just to pass an assessment, but also to use it an unspecified period of time in the future - i.e. it must be retained in long-term memory, and be amenable to transfer.

The newly re-elected Scottish Government has made it very clear that education is a top political priority, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has highlighted that we must try to ‘close the attainment gap’ in terms of the academic under-peformance of the least well-off young people in our society. I would certainly commend that sentiment. I would also suggest that interventions that have been shown to improve attainment exist in the psychology research literature, and has increasingly been applied to real settings and with authentic learning material.

What’s more, any such interventions - although they can help everybody - are likely to benefit to the lowest achievers most. This is simply because the less you have learned up to now, the greater the potential for improvement; the worse your study habits, the more you can improve them. In contrast, some other possible interventions tend to preferentially help higher achievers, for example more homework or smaller classes.

A major challenge, then, is to engage with the wealth of scientific research on memory that is out there, digest it, and communicate it in a way that teachers, learners and parents can actually use. There needs to be an increased psychological literacy when it comes to human memory - we need to understand how our own learning processes work, and how to use them better.

That is the aim of this blog.

The social brain hypothesis⤴

from @ Memory & Education Blog - Jonathan Firth

Did Lemurs' brains evolve to cope with their group size? Image by Erik Coolen.

Did Lemurs' brains evolve to cope with their group size? Image by Erik Coolen.

What caused human brains – and those of other apes – to grow so large? One theory is that it resulted from the complexity of our environment – the day to day problems that our ancestors would have encountered in foraging and survival: Where are the fruit trees? Which ones did I pick from yesterday?

Another idea – the social brain hypothesis – is that the complexity of our social groups require a big brain to keep track of, especially when the group is large. A bigger group means more relationships to remember.

Doing either of these things well could potentially lead to a survival advantage, but which actually triggered the evolution of our unique brain size? Dunbar (1992) put the two theories to the test by comparing both foraging area and group size with neocortex ratio – the proportion of brain neocortex to other brain areas (considered a better measure of overall ‘braininess’ than absolute brain size).

A clear correlation was found – a bigger group was associated with a larger neocortex ratio, supporting the social brain hypothesis. In contrast there was no clear relationship between brain size and environmental complexity. It would appear that primates with larger social groups need larger brains in order to keep track of relationships. That is not to say, as Dunbar comments, that those large brains couldn’t then be useful for dealing with environmental problems – but he does not feel it was the evolutionary driving force (Dunbar, 1998).

Human Groups

Since the early work with other primates, Dunbar began to question whether the same principle would apply to human social groups. To fit with the ratio that had been established, a group size of around 150 would be predicted (Dunbar, 1998). When we look at historical settlements, groups of around 120-150 members abound (Dunbar, 1993), and this is also the size of tribes in most hunter-gatherer tribes - the closest model we have of the lifestyle of our early ancestors.

In a neat application of the concept to the modern world, Hill and Dunbar (2003) looked at the size of networks to which people send Christmas cards. 153.5 was the mean total population of the households receiving cards from any individual - only a fraction over the predicted maximum number, and in practice, senders of cards would probably not know every member of a recipient household equally well.

More recently, other researchers have started to look at new technology and social media, to ask whether technological developments have expanded the size of our natural social network. It appears that they haven’t done so, at least not significantly – despite the large number of contacts people often establish on Twitter, the number they regularly communicate with remains under 200 (Gonçalves et al., 2011).


The key idea from the social brain hypothesis is that evolution has determined a cognitive limit on what we can do; just as we have other mental limits such as short-term memory capacity, the brain is simply not capable of maintaining a greater number of close social relationships.

What does this number mean in practice? An obvious question to ask is how close a relationship has to be to count within the number. Do colleagues and extended family count? Just how do we define who is in our 150 and who is not? According to Dunbar, a simple way to look at it is as “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar” (Bennett, 2013). If it truly is a biological limit, it could imply that we should avoid trying to continually extend our circle of friends/acquaintances, and instead foster stronger relationships with those that we are already close to.


Dunbar’s number does seem to be applicable to a large number of situations, from historic communities to hunter gatherer tribes, from the size of army units to Twitter engagement.

However not everyone is convinced. A correlation between brain size and social group size does not prove that there was an evolutionary cause-and-effect. And de Ruiter et al. (2011) have argued that although the neocortex plays an important role in social functioning, its size does not directly determine social skills.

It could also be argued that Dunbar has cherry-picked examples that fit the theory post-hoc, and that had the number from the correlation calculation been different (say 250), he would have been able to find examples of human communities to fit. Nevertheless, the idea that we do have a natural group size seems to fit the evidence of other species, and it makes a lot of sense to suggest that we can't push that limit beyond a certain point without impacting on the quality of the relationships.


Bennett, D. (2012). The Dunbar Number, From the Guru of Social Networks. Retrieved 20/11/2014 from: http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-01-10/the-dunbar-number-from-the-guru-of-social-networks

Dunbar, R.I.M. (1992). Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates. Journal of Human Evolution, 22, 469-493.

Dunbar, R.I.M. (1993). Coevolution of neocortical size, group size and language in humans. Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 16, 681-735.

Dunbar, R.I.M. (1998). The social brain hypothesis. Brain, 9(10), 178-190.

Gonçalves, B., Perra, N. and Vespignani, A. (2011). Modeling Users’ Activity on Twitter Networks: Validation of Dunbar’s Number. PLoS ONE, 6(8): e22656. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0022656

Hill, R.A. and Dunbar, R.I.M (2003). Social network size in humans. Human Nature, 14(1), 53-72.

de Ruiter, J., Weston, G. and Lyon, S.M. (2011). Dunbar’s Number: Group Size and Brain Physiology in Humans Reexamined. American Anthropologist, 113(4), 557–568.

#Flashbulb Memory by @TeacherToolkit⤴


How good is your memory? How much can you recall from your own schooling and can you think why this has stuck with you? Context: As I get to grips with writing my second book, I have been increasing the breadth and depth of my own research and re-thinking how memory can all be applied … Okumaya devam et