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© 2016 Elsevier Inc. Conversations are ubiquitous and central elements of daily life. Yet a fundamental feature of conversation remains a mystery: It is genuinely difficult to maintain an everyday conversation with more than four speakers. Why? We introduce a “mentalizing explanation” for the conversation size constraint, which suggests that humans have a natural limit on their ability to model the minds of others, and that this limit, in turn, shapes the sizes of everyday conversations. Using established methodologies for investigating conversation size, we pit this mentalizing hypothesis against two competing explanations—that the size of a conversation is limited by a short-term memory capacity (limiting the factual information we process) or by an auditory constraint (speakers need to be able to hear what each other are saying)—in conversations drawn from a real-world college campus and from Shakespearean plays. Our results provide support for the mentalizing hypothesis and also render alternative accounts less plausible.

Original publication




Journal article


Evolution and Human Behavior

Publication Date





423 - 428