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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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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
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?
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.
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 | 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.
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
7/21/2014 | 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.
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. 
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
7/23/2014 | 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.
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.
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
7/18/2014 | 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.
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.
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. :)
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.
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.
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!
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. :)
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.
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.
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.
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