Strategic CIO // Team Building & Staffing
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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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David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/21/2014 | 5:51:04 PM
Re: Friend groups in childhood
@Michelle- Kid friend groups are fascinating aren't they? My daughter just had her birthday party. And part of me was struck by how many children there were that walked and talked and looked jsut like her. There was a point where I went up to girl to tell her to lower her voice and realized just a step away from her that it wasn't my daughter to shush. :)

On the other hand, when they all lined up to do some sort of activity I was happy to see nearly every skin tone and hair color represented. There was one girl who had to be at least 18 inches taller than my daughter despite being the same age. She certainly did attract some girls like her. But she also didn't let that stop her from finding some girls that were as different as possible. It was very gratifying.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/21/2014 | 5:46:58 PM
Re: look alikes
@SaneIT- Yes, Tinder, specifically, has a reputation that might be a problem. I do think long-term versus short term interests change the equation. And not just in the sense that if you have short term goals you are probably less picky. :) there are probably more genetic pressures on you working in the background.

One thing you bring up here about a diverse group of friends also makes me wonder if this is something we can over ride with time based on the realities of our world. If we live in an ever increasingly diverse world, will the heuristics change because the equation of the way the world works change them? I don't know, but it seems plausible.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/21/2014 | 5:42:50 PM
Re: Slight Glitch in the Theory
@Lufu- That's awesome. Might I recommend contacts for her? :)

Seriously, obviously we have many examples of wonderful couples who were able to see past the obvious looks issues. It would be fun to see how genetically paired you were on the less obvious features. When the genetics tests get cheaper, maybe we can send out kits to IWeek readers and their spouses to do a bit of testing. :)
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/21/2014 | 5:40:32 PM
Re: The face that somehow I trust
@Rich- Brilliant! You just showed us how to succeed at comments without really trying. :)
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/21/2014 | 5:37:57 PM
Re: look alikes
@JonNLakeland- Definitely, though i don't know if that is nature or nurture. There's a long held theory that we trust and help people who look more like us because it helps us keep our genes alive. The closer related to us someone is, the more we want their genes to live on. It is interesitng though, because clealry our parents nurture us.
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Strategist
7/21/2014 | 3:54:21 PM
Re: look alikes
@SaneIT, perhaps you are in the minority here in terms of this clan-ism. Of course a lot of it has to do with where you grow up. I went to school in a diverse public school system outside of a very diverse and large city. I've never none anything but difference, and my groups of friends reflect that. If you grew up in a small town, or a very segregated community, you might not even have the chance to  mix it up.
Michelle
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Michelle,
User Rank: Strategist
7/21/2014 | 12:16:36 PM
Friend groups in childhood
I think this (incomplete) study might give insight to the look alike friend groups seen in middle school children. At least one of my kids has been friends with a group of other kids that shared similar traits like hair color, eye color, skin tone, and even hair length.
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
7/21/2014 | 7:26:45 AM
Re: look alikes
Using an application like Tinder does seem like a good method since it has the mechanisms built in for matching.  I just wonder if anything changes between those looking for long term relationships vs. flings.  Looking around at my friends I can say that I've got a very diverse group around me.  I guess maybe that feeling that I don't fit into traditional groups is accurate.  I like people for their differences, I don't want to be around people just like me, I want people with different stories to tell, strengths that I don't have and little things that enrich my life.
LUFU
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LUFU,
User Rank: Strategist
7/19/2014 | 3:34:07 PM
Slight Glitch in the Theory
This helps explain why my wife and I get occasional comments about being an odd couple. I'm of northern European heritage and am 6'2", blue eyes, originally blond, and a noticeable proboscis. My wife is Japanese who is 5'1", dark black hair, brown-almost black eyes, and cute little nose that doesn't hold up eyeglasses.
soozyg
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soozyg,
User Rank: Ninja
7/18/2014 | 10:31:30 PM
Re: look alikes
And test to see how many people picked similar hair color, eye color, skin tone, etc.

Yes, but that goes back to my statement about dark vs. blond hair. I would not match up with a blond person, because I would pick the dark hair. So, according to the theory, there would be no mutual attraction established.
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