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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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PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
7/18/2014 | 10:24:03 PM
Re: look alikes
Interesting article.  I was wondering that such behavior promoted by some unknown force deep in us forces us to have such connection with our friends.  It is no wonder that people tend to hire people that look like them which then translates in creating groups of people that think alike.  I don't know if we could ever break from is pattern, the app may warned us that such things happen. 
JonNLakeland
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JonNLakeland,
User Rank: Moderator
7/18/2014 | 7:58:27 PM
Re: look alikes
Another thought - people tend to look like their parents. Children tend to trust their parents (barring something abnormal like abuse). The point being that maybe you are friends with, or hire, not people who like you - but people who look like your parents (whom you happen to also look like). 

 

Just throwing it out there as a possible "nurture" answer to the question posed.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/18/2014 | 1:26:46 PM
Re: look alikes
@soozyg- That's interesting from two perspectives. 1) You might be "attracted" to dark haired men but end up with the blond because of your brain. 2) Or it is entirely possib;e since dating requires mutual attraction, that only blond men return the attraction because of THEIR brain.

I think it would be fun to take something like Tinder where both sides have to clain attraction for them to be able to communicate and make the data anonymous. And test to see how many people picked similar hair color, eye color, skin tone, etc. I suspect it would lend a lot of data to something which by necessity has never had enough data associated with it.
soozyg
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soozyg,
User Rank: Ninja
7/18/2014 | 1:21:11 PM
Re: look alikes
the brain patterns that pick this stuff out can be consciously overridden

That's an interesting point because (and this is kind of personal, but....) I have dark blond hair. I've always been attracted to dark hair on men and yet most of the relationships I've had have been with blond men.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/18/2014 | 12:47:49 PM
Re: look alikes
@soozyg- Well, impossible to say 100%. We dont know how it works. But I'd say the vast majority of why we do it is nature. And the ways to overcome it is nurture.

We pick these similarities for genetic and evolutionary reasons. You don't know, for example, what a person's immune system is like or their similarity in olfactory prowess. You might be attracted to friends because they hang out in the same place (say the candle shop) that might be a subtle clue to these things. But you don't really know. We're predisposed to want to help our "kin" for evolutionary reasons.

That said, the brain patterns that pick this stuff out can be consciously overridden. And that is nurture. So, a manager can learn to overlook it. A person can find friends of all types. And they aren't even all that hard to overcome if you are aware of them, so I'm not giving racism a free pass.

i'm saying that you need to be aware of these human tendencies and be concscious not to let them overwhelm your better judgment.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/18/2014 | 12:42:24 PM
Re: look alikes
@ariella- Yup. It also is something that goes into whether you will offer help to someone who needs it.

I could have picked a million examples.

One of the hard parts to separate here is that there are potentially two different things going on here. We know biologically nearly every species including our own are more likely to help people/animals that look similar because we're more likely to be related. And being related means you are helping pass your genes down the line which is the evolutionary goal.

But we also know that for things like marriage, friendship, and a few other things, you need at least some genetic differences (marrying your brother or sister is not such a great idea, for example). The immune system is another one I brought up.

So we're somewhow looking for people "just enough" like us, I guess.
soozyg
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soozyg,
User Rank: Ninja
7/18/2014 | 11:40:04 AM
Re: look alikes
It only stands to reason that if we pick dogs who look like us, and friends who look like us, we're going to pick co-workers who look like us. ....It is an insidious form of racism, sexism, and even ageism that prevents success.

Interesting....so how much of this is nature vs. nurture?
Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Ninja
7/18/2014 | 11:00:24 AM
look alikes
It also plays a role in marriage selection ""When you have a face that looks more like you, you tend to trust it more and think it looks more cooperative," says Tony Little, a research fellow in psychology at the University of Stirling in Scotland. He is among a small group of researchers studying the role of the human face in mating choices." from http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/health/wellness/story/2012-06-18/lookalikes-attract/55720994/1
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