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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.

rely on these types of heuristic judgments to make quick decisions, like whether to go left or right in a sport or when to yell and when to make a joke at a business meeting. But they can get us into serious trouble, too.

Remember those long-haired women who like floppy-eared dogs? They also think floppy-eared dogs are smarter than other dogs. More worrisome, managers tend to hire people who look just like them as well. This (admittedly old but unchallenged to my knowledge) study from the late 1990s showed that managers were far more likely to hire people of their same race and gender. We can only speculate that the same impulse (or heuristic) that makes long-haired women think floppy-eared dogs are smarter could act on them when they interview women with similar hair. The advice to not hire people "just like you" is still common in the business literature, which suggests an ongoing problem with how we hire.

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. But obviously this is a real problem. It means a general lack of skillsets and mindsets in the work place. It is an insidious form of racism, sexism, and even ageism that prevents success.

And heck, it isn't all that much fun having these biases for friends, either. Is this what we want our friends to look like?

Or do we want friends of different types, shapes, and sizes with different ideas of fun?

Fortunately, we can overcome these types of heuristics with conscious effort. Once we know about these tendencies, we can begin to make some active choices to eliminate bias.

At the same time, as much as it's important to watch out for these tendencies in hiring and important social settings, we can also have a little fun with this. How about turning this information into an app that pairs us with friends nearby with similar genetic construction?

And it's just nice to know that we're drawn together by invisible forces that bind us without us even knowing it. We're meant to be friends with our friends. It's in our nature. That's cool.

Do your friends look like you? Do you think you might share similar genes? Would you want to know who you're predisposed to becoming friends with? Do you find yourself hiring people like you? What strategies do you use to overcome this tendency? Tell us below, and share a picture of you and your look-a-like (or not so look-a-like) friends or pets.

Also, if you're enjoying posts like this one, follow me on Twitter @GeekendDave. I post daily content similar to this piece that will help you get through your whole work week while waiting for the next Geekend.

InformationWeek's new Must Reads is a compendium of our best recent coverage of the Internet of Things. Find out the way in which an aging workforce will drive progress on the Internet of Things, why the IoT isn't as scary as some folks seem to think, how connected machines will change the supply chain, and more. (Free registration required.)

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: Ninja
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: Ninja
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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