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7/18/2014
06:00 AM
David Wagner
David Wagner
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Geekend: Familiar Faces Can Be Friendly (Or Dangerous)

Studies show we pick our friends -- and employees -- based on visible and invisible similarities.

You can pick your friends. You can pick your nose. And you can pick your friend based on their noses. A study making headlines this week shows that a genetic test can help determine better than chance whether two people will become friends, because we pick friends with genetic similarities, from shape of noses to how those noses smell things.

We've known instinctively for a long time (and proved it with a study in 2011) that people pick friends who look like them. In the study, students in school, when given a choice, were shown to sit next to people of the same gender, race, and general appearance.

But it turns out that this selection goes way deeper than appearance. We also instinctively seek genetic similarities that are impossible to see with the naked eye, so every one of your friends isn't going to look just like you. As mentioned, one of the things we look for in a friend is a similar sense of smell, and we're still mapping others. The similarities account for only about 1% of our genes, but that's enough to be as closely related as fourth cousins.

[Can you sit still for 15 minutes? Bet you can't. Read Geekend: Doing Nothing Is Worse Than Hurting Yourself.]

We don't know exactly what or how many similarities we look for, because the data is incomplete. The research, conducted by professors at Yale and University of California San Diego, used a 1948 study that linked pairs of friends for lifestyle and genetic markers to help determine heart disease risk. The only downside of the 1948 study is that it was centered in Boston and focused on people of Italian-American descent. We're not sure how easily the results of that study apply to other ethnic groups.

Still, the researchers are pretty sure it transfers, because the authors see our propensity to pick genetically similar friends as an evolutionary strategy. Not only do we look for certain similarities, but we also look for differences in one key area: immune systems. That is, we look for friends who are immune to things we aren't immune to. It makes sense, because if your friend can't get a particular disease there's no way you're getting it from him.

How are we detecting these genetic similarities? Are we smelling them through body chemicals? Are we seeing clues we don't understand consciously?

No one knows, but I'm guessing we can see them in the way we pick our pets. Have you ever noticed how much certain people look like their pets?

There's a reason: We like to look at ourselves. Studies have shown that women with long hair prefer dogs with floppy ears. The ears remind them of their hair. The selection goes beyond appearance to personality type. We pick types of pets and breeds based on personality. We want pets (and friends) like us.

How do we even identify people who are "like" us in ways beyond appearance? The brain has mechanisms, called heuristics, that help see similarities. Have you ever wandered down a foreign city street for the first time and feel like you're seeing friends' faces everywhere? That's your brain trying to make the familiar out of the unfamiliar.

Ever look at a cucumber and see a penguin?

That's a similar (though different) mechanism. Our brain is trying to find something in our current experience that matches our previous experiences so we can better understand what we're seeing.

It's entirely possible we're picking up on genetic clues that help us know about other inner workings of the body. For instance, a study showed that there are roughly 14 types of noses in England. We often make assumptions about people and their character based on noses. It's possible that we're not only seeing character in those noses, but also instinctually seeing genetic similarities, including olfactory prowess and even more obscure genetic traits.

These types of heuristic judgments aren't bad by themselves. They help us make quick decisions that are often good shortcuts to the right answer. We

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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Michelle
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Michelle,
User Rank: Strategist
7/27/2014 | 10:31:40 PM
Re: Friend groups in childhood
@Dave it's nice to see diversity like that. I love that so many kids today don't even seem to notice differences like skin color - if they do it's a minor detail they don't consider. Kids are a curious group!
kstaron
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kstaron,
User Rank: Moderator
7/24/2014 | 2:13:01 PM
lack of diversity vs social norms of the time
With a study that started over 60 years ago when there was a huge social push to conform and be with others like you, I wonder if the study started today, how it might change. But then again I was the oddball that played with the boys while the other girls still thought they had cooties.

I remember a segment of Freakonomics saying companies were much less likely to hire african americans with 'unique' names than if they had common names. This could also add to the pile of reasons for the lack of diversity in IT.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/23/2014 | 12:25:38 PM
Re: Familiar Faces Can Be Friendly (Or Dangerous)
@zerox203- The study started in the 50's and goes to the present. It is modern research. The point of the study was to follow pairs of folks over time to see how lifestyle, genetics, etc affected heart health.

the study was re-purposed for the needs of the other study. Obviously, because we haven't had the ability to do genetic tests in quick and affordable ways until recently, you can bet the study only used the more recent parts of the study and people who are still alive. 

There are still limitaitons here (most of the folks were Italian American for example) but it is a modern study.
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
7/23/2014 | 7:46:50 AM
Re: look alikes
For some of us I think that we are more driven by our interests than by "comfort" in cases like this we don't tend to care if someone had many traits that we have we just look for one key trait like the love for a hobby or personal goals.  Kids tend to be this way because if you catch them young enough their goal is to play and have fun, you put them in a room with other kids who want to play and they will become friends very quickly.
zerox203
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zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
7/23/2014 | 7:27:57 AM
Re: Familiar Faces Can Be Friendly (Or Dangerous)
This is definitely an interesting topic, but I'm a little skeptical of the research itself. You said it was piggybacked on research from all the way back in 50s? Why is that? Why didn't the Yale  and UYC San Diego researches just do new research from scratch?  Just like you suggest, isn't the technology available to collect a much wider variety of information and verify it better too - it seems a little suspect. I'm not overly skeptical of the idea that we might use subconscious genetic markers to pick our friends; I'm just skeptical that a study done with modern technology could confirm it. With so many gaps in how we still understand genetics, aren't there jsut too many variables to control for?

This is nevertheless a topic that pokes at the very deepest questions that we ask ourselves as people. Why do we pick our friends? Moreover, even if we can understand every little thing about human behavior, does that mean we should mess with it? The notion that we would break down making friends to a list of genetic markers evokes images of some the worst sci-fi scenarios one can think of. I'm not quite ready to wear the silver jumpsuit just yet. Maybe some things are best left to the imagination. Imagine being self-conscious about your olfactory senses all the time when talking to (or not talking to) people.
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Strategist
7/22/2014 | 11:28:15 PM
Re: look alikes
@David, that's a good point and what makes this research so startling. Is that the differences we somehow pick up are so subtle and beyond the usual racial and socioeconomic differences that we typically fixate on as a society. What if we are loner wolves, though? Does that mean there's no one else out there like us?
impactnow
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impactnow,
User Rank: Ninja
7/22/2014 | 1:34:37 PM
Re: look alikes

 

Sane IT I agree, I don't have any friends that look like me. Part of that I think is I tend to find friends with similar interests and meet many of them in a professional atmosphere. I could see the theory holding true with kids, I do see young children gravitating to kids that look like themselves but even that is not holding up as they get older. It would be interesting to overlay socioeconomic background over the data to see of it made a difference in friend choice.

SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
7/22/2014 | 7:14:51 AM
Re: look alikes
@Broadway0474, That may be part of it, when I was a kid my dad lived in a largely minority area so when I was at his house I spent the time hanging out with kids that looked nothing like me.  If that was it then it carried through to adulthood because my group of friends is still very diverse.  I like to think that I look at people for their strengths not their similarities or their differences.  If I want to do something I want people around me who are good at what they are doing so I'm less worried about their appearance than I am their performance.
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
7/22/2014 | 7:10:55 AM
Re: look alikes
The genetic pressures are more of what I was referring to.  I've seen many times that depending on hormone levels woman look for different attributes in men.  I wouldn't be surprised at all to see data from an app like Tinder that shows patterns of preferences that vary in cycles that coincide with biological cycles. 

 

I think that adjusting the diversity of friends is fairly easy for some people but for a society as a whole it's incredibly difficult.  As you mentioned in the blog post a lot of it is subconscious so people don't realize that they gravitate toward comfortable people.  I can't say exactly why I get along with so many different types of people but I suspect it is because I tend to be uncomfortable in general in social situations so I make the most of it and get to know people that have stories to tell that are nothing like mine.  It does make life much more interesting, I'll say that much.

 
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/21/2014 | 5:53:00 PM
Re: look alikes
@Broadway- Definitely. Opportunity matters for sure. Your brain is going to work differently based on its experiences. At the same time, there are sublte differences even within closed communities. We have a tendency to forget the subtle differences in shades of hair or skin tone sometimes. The brain picks up in these cues as well.
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