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What is homophily and why does it matter?

Gossip and identity

When making decisions, we’re often lured into the security of seeking things that resonate with our pre-existing ideas. This is comformation bias. You have an idea, you (subconsciously) seek approval of that idea, you actively select information and make choices that confirm your idea.

I came across a new term in Matthew Syed’s Rebel Ideas recently - homophily. He celebrates how organisations can lean on a range of individuals with different backgrounds to ensure the idea space covered is as broad as can be. He describes homophily as something that prevents that where:

“people tend to hire people who look and think like themselves”

Homophily therefore exists in a similar vein to confirmation bias where we are subconsciously seeking similarity between ourselves and others.

From my view, confirmation bias and homophily seem to be connected to identity and survival. Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens discusses just what makes us human, or more specifically, what makes us Homo Sapiens. The gossip system is described as being fundamental to how families and tribes bond together which was part of Homo Sapiens’ success. We could find, connect with, and then collaborate with other individuals.

Whilst we’re not exactly collaborating for survival in the day-to-day of modern living, it still exists and we find it in funny ways. An example I think about a lot comes from when we, as a family, visited Rockhampton in Queensland, Australia a couple of years ago. It’s a fairly quiet place. Whilst there one of our party, a Scouser and proud Liverpool FC supporter (two traits with particularly strong social groups), disappeared off to some local bars to grab a cold one. Out of all of the interesting people around loaded with fascinating stories that he would never had heard before, in this small town in Australia he managed to find another Scouser who he quickly befriended and occassionaly spent time with for the rest of our stay. From a purely recreational standpoint, it makes sense - I too like to kick back with people with similar views, like my friends, and talk nonsense over a beer - it’s easy and it doesn’t take a great deal of cognitive load.

But still, just think about it - two people, 10,000 miles from home, found each other in a foreign environment and bonded over their shared identity and ideas. That’s powerful.

The information age

This effect underpins some of the challenges in the Information Age that we live in today. We can readily source reinforcement of our ideas, regardless of how good or bad they might be. In our personal lives we might Google a statement and receive results that closely match our searched term, potentially even echoing the same message as the question e.g. “Oh you searched, ‘Why homophily matters?’, well I too thought that it matters and wrote this blog post”. Except, of course, you don’t have to travel half way around the world to meet people with similar views - they’re available right there at your fingertips. At a deeper level, as search engines refine their algorithms to serve us more content that we might like (and let’s be clear, we like to hear things that reinforce our beliefs and these search engines want our repeat business), we might start to see more results geared specifically to our interests - a sort of systemic confirmation bias.

On a harmless level, you could look at, say, music streaming services compared to radio. Right now, Apple Music on my iPhone is presenting me with some other bands I might like to listen to based on my recently played tracks. It’s suggesting I give Wolfmother a listen (noted) a band I’ve never really spent much time with before. Radio - radio doesn’t do that. At least not on a granular level. You might tune in to a favourite station based on your tastes but it’s not going to gear the playlist around you specifically.

Expand this analogy further. A streaming service on an iPhone will follow you literally everywhere around the world - as long as you’ve got an expensive data plan or WiFi.

However, with radio it goes like this. You’re driving around in your beloved 13 year old VW Passat which serves dutifully as your family wagon. It rocks a VW head unit which, for the time it was manufactured, was pretty standard with its CD player and radio. Except, perhaps not so standard about it is that your toddler inserted old train tickets into the CD player so, through a lack of options, you listen to the radio when heading out on family trips. You go over the South Downs and slowly your go-to local radio station peters out to white noise so you jam the search button to find the next station. Immediately you’ll be met with new sounds, a new station, new concepts.

Ok, ok, that’s a low impact example, but this same concept is played out on much more significant levels. In the first episode of David Letterman’s show on Netflix, Barack Obama talks about this very same mechanism (the search engine, not the radio one) and how its affecting politics, arguably a more signifiant issue than my listening habits.

Bring your bias to work day

Of course all of this search for similarity is really the polar opposite of one of the most discussed terms in the business today: diversity. We are now not in the same place in the evolutionary spectrum where common traits might actually be useful. We are now solving global problems not localised ones. But that doesn’t mean looking for similar team mates is not still embedded in our nature.

In your business, if you let your basic nature go unchecked you might be unknowingly drifting far from the course. Slowly, but surely, your organisation becomes less and less relevant to the world around you as the mass hub of global ideas outside your four walls worms its way down an unpredictable path. You, however, remain confident that your making the right decisions as you keep recruiting in all those super intelligent people who just so happen to like the same things as you - who you relate to. As the gap between your interpretation and the actual world view widens, you place your bets on that wonderful new widget that ultimately bombs because you’re out of touch.

Homophily is the enemy of innovation here. Actively recruiting and seeking a diverse range of ideas leads to abstract linking of ideas, recombination, where ideas from two or more totally different domains are brought together to form one new brilliant one.

  • What if an airline was fun and easy and sparked a bit of joy each time you travelled? Southwest Airlines
  • What if we ran a company with a vision-first approach? Apple. Think Different
  • What if we sell socks that aren’t in pairs? United Odd Socks - story here

There’s a lot of these examples in business where people bring to market products and solutions they’re sure the world will love but it doesn’t work out. Despite referencing Apple above they also have some famous examples of failed products like the Power Mac G4 Cube and even Steve Jobs himself was even a backer of Segway when it was cited as the revolution in personal transportation. Homophily might be a reason why. It’s crucial to the success of your organisation to understand if you’ve blindsided yourself from what matters in the world outside.

These concepts don’t just play out in your organisation’s commercial success. If you’re consistently building a great place for you and your buddies to hang out, it should not come as a surprise that the workplace may turn sour as you build a culture around you. It may not be an easy thing to do, but consider your recent hires - did you recruit them because they were the right fit for the role? Or, did you recruit them because you liked them? And for those staff members who are different from you, are they flourishing in the environment? Or, are they keeping quiet as their interpretation of the organisation’s work doesn’t resonate with the majority?

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.

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