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Christmas party© natianis - Shutterstock

Like it or loathe it, it’s that time of the year again - Christmas Party Season! Grab your spangly Christmas lab coat and a beakerful of eggnog and join in as Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Psychology, helps us navigate our way through the (sometimes awkward) festivities. Characterised by Jimmy Carr on a Horizon special dedicated to The Science of Laughter as a ‘drug pedlar’ for his research emphasis on experiences conducive to the production of endorphins [editor’s note: Professor Dunbar prefers to characterise pushing bliss as a ‘a successful (and entirely legitimate) research spinoff’], the man is an expert at social cohesion, or, in technical terms, ‘getting the party started’. 

Christmas Tree constructed from lab equipment© Shutterstock

We enter a lab that has been converted into a makeshift ‘winter wonderland’, with fairy lights and bits of tinsel, the smell of mulled wine and mince pies mingling with disinfectants in a heady mix. An iPod streams (‘lite’) jazz versions of holiday classics. Staff and students mill around, but despite the holly-decked halls and stabs at festivity, the atmosphere remains subdued.

OxfordMedSci: ‘So tonight we’re disseminating endorphins in an effort to get this group to bond a little more. Looks like these guys could do with some help. Shall we begin?’

RD: ‘The holidays provide an especially fertile ground for cheer, Joy to the World and all that, but looking at this crowd, I think we have some work to do. Something’s not quite right...’

Professor Dunbar sweeps the room with a single searching gaze, does some very quick mental arithmetic – ‘ah!’ – and vigorously pushes the one-hundred-and-fifty-first party-goer out of the door. The impact is immediate: people suddenly seem to recognise one another, to manifest a collective identity: the lab springs to life!

RD: ‘Very good. Now for a few more adjustments...’ Professor Dunbar whistles to his sheepdog [editor’s note: did we mention that Professor Dunbar is accompanied by a sheepdog?] who deftly begins separating the guests into small groups divided by gender, ‘...that normally happens naturally’.

Groups of men shuffle towards the stationery cupboard-cum-games room, and initiate a rowdy game of mime-the-biological-function charades. ‘Men frequently bond over shared activities’, the professor notes. ‘Women, meanwhile, tend to engage through conversation. And generally social bonding is encouraged by reminiscing over shared experiences, and through humour’.

Professor Dunbar snaps his fingers and a bank of computer monitor screensavers begins scrolling through photographs of previous lab holiday parties and fun-in-retrospect “team-building” activities [editor’s note: did we mention that the professor can control all electronic devices within a ten-metre radius?]. Another shows graphs of citations for the group’s work in festive red and green.

In a faultless imitation of the voice of one of the PIs, Professor Dunbar throws his voice towards one end of the room [editor’s note; did we mention that Professor Dunbar is a perfect mimic?], ‘I just love Christmas. Do you remember the time...’ Voices rise gaily in agreement.

RD: ‘Humour is also important. The best jokes are complex, and revel in presentation of various levels of intentionality – different states of mind – but within limits.’ In the voice of another lab member, Professor Dunbar begins, ‘So, these three wise men walk into a stable...’ A babble of voices joins in, punctuated by the occasional punchline (‘... and I said, that’s not myrrh, that’s...’) and general hilarity ensues.

OxfordMedSci: ‘Ah, this is terrific, everyone’s enjoying themselves, and the endorphins are starting to flow!’

Everyone’s attention is drawn to a sudden hubbub near the door, and Good King Wenceslas wafts in on a swell of voices.

Carol singers© ShutterstockThe professor looks pleased, but wary: ‘Communal singing is a great way to reinforce collective bonds within a group and really gets the endorphins jumping. However, as with all powerful highs, singing must be managed with great care. I’ve lost a lot of very good post-docs to that particular demimonde. It begins innocently with joining in during the occasional carol service; then they do the complete Twelve Days of Christmas  – “just to entertain the kids” – and [RD fixes us with steely look] complete with acting out flamboyant gestures for each ‘day’; suddenly they are having a few friends over or organising a small group in the work canteen “to sing a Christmas classic or two;” and the next thing you know they’re out in the streets with full blown MISHAPS [Midwinter-Induced Shameless Holiday-Appropriate Public Singing]. It just goes to show how dangerous our work can be. They get a taste and they’re lost to science forever: try explaining that on a grant application’

But this singing malarkey seems to be paying off, as professors, post-docs and even the office junior join in God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, which begins heartily before tailing off in some disarray. ‘Thank goodness no one knows the second verse to most carols,’ the professor breathes with relief.

At this point, things are really swinging, and Professor Dunbar decides it time for the final push. He snaps his fingers and the iPod begins pumping a mashup combining the soundtracks to the last eight John Lewis Christmas ads with the special ‘Rock the [Jingle] Bells’ remix of Skepta’s Shutdown. ‘This is a mix of my own devising’, the professor notes modestly, ‘now follow these steps!’

Dancers at a Christmas Party© ShutterstockWith Professor Dunbar out front leading the moves, everyone joins in a number worthy of the Strictly Christmas special. While the dancing carries on, the professor steps to the side, mops his brow, and offers, ‘dancing encourages cooperative behaviour and feelings of social closeness. And damn it’s fun’.

The party now in full flow, a look of quiet satisfaction on Professor Dunbar’s face, we move towards the door.

OxfordMedSci: ‘Thank you very much, Professor. This has been very illuminating’.

RD: ‘It’s been a pleasure. I have six more parties to hit tonight, so I’d best be going’.

But as we prepare to part, an undergrad passes by, and Professor Dunbar suddenly pulls up. ‘Ah, the endorphins are strong with this one’. Another student approaches, and the two enter a fervent embrace.

RD: 'They must be quite familiar with each other – you can tell by the hands. It sounds self-evident, but the more we are emotionally connected, the more parts of each other’s bodies we can touch'. He pauses.

‘These two hardly need my help, but...’ From nowhere the Professor produces a sprig of berry-laden mistletoe, which he telekinetically [editor’s note: did we mention that Professor Dunbar has the Power of Telekinesis?] manoeuvres above the couple: they notice and squeal with delight. ‘We’ll just leave them to it’.

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For information on booking Professor Dunbar for your next social gathering, please tweet @OxfordMedSci with the hashtag #EndorphinAintEasy

A huge thank you to Professor Robin Dunbar and the Department of Experimental Psychology.

Written by Alison Brindle and Joseph Ripp.

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