Monthly Archives: November 2012

The “Pretty Girl” Paradox

A fast friend heuristic to determine who to marry, hire, or even invest in

The “pretty girl” is the object of desire, rare and easy to spot. For our purposes, the “pretty girl” (gender neutral here) can be a potential mate, a company where you may want to work, someone you may want to hire, or an entrepreneur in whose start-up you may want to invest.

But to weed out the great from the good takes rigorous due diligence, so, here is a simple friend heuristic that could make it easier to do the sorting.

Finding a soul mate

Pgp_modelsWhen looking for a mate, everyone wants that “pretty girl.” For some, that means good looks, for others it might mean wealth, and still for others, an Ivy League education. Most people looking for a mate are influenced by one overriding and particular trait over the rest. In fact, even if the other traits are negative, a person will likely go on at least one date with someone if that key trait is positive. And so, perhaps fairly or unfairly, these Pretty Girls have opportunities not available to the rest waiting behind the red velvet ropes.

But as experience dictates, not all “pretty girls” are created equal. Some beautiful people are ugly on the inside. Some rich people are vapid. Some erudites are emotionally stunted and Ivy League schools have their share of the lazy and entitled.

Pgp-rich-manUncovering those deal-breaking faults takes time and effort.

We are hardwired for friendships. Given the importance we place and energy we expend tracking and communicating with a particular set of close friends, the social web we weave says quite a bit about us as a potential mate (or hire, candidate, etc.).

So here is a fast and frugal “friend heuristic” to determine whom you might want to marry:

  1. Pgp-queen beeIf all their close friends are also “pretty”, birds of a feather and all that, you don’t want to marry them. They are likely too worried about their image and trying to be “cool.”
  2. If all their close friends are not “pretty,” you don’t want to marry them. They have a “Queen Bee” complex and need to be the center of attention. 
  3. However, if their friend group is more diverse on that particular dimension, they’re a much better bet. 

In my unscientific survey, this is true whether the overriding trait you’re searching for is looks, wealth, education, or some other quality.

Hiring and the “Friend Heuristic”

Pgp-silouette personHiring, like dating, is fraught with (frequently costly) errors. Depending on their culture, companies over-optimize one single trait: intelligence, hard work, hustle, experience, friendliness, pedigree, etc.

And that trait, like all pretty girls, is usually easy to spot. But, of course, you don’t want to hire someone that only has that trait and miss major flaws.

Just like dating, take a look at their close friends. If all, or none, of their friends are “pretty,” there is probably something wrong with this person. If they live in San Francisco and all their friends go to Burning Man, they might be living in a bubble. If they live in SF and none of their friends go to Burning Man, they might also be living in a bubble. Having diverse set of friends leads to out-of-the-box thinking and an ability to branch out of one's comfort zone.

This is also a good exercise when investing in a company

When meeting the founders of a company, it is really hard to assess if they are a non-linear thinkers. Can they go against the grain?

Pgp-mistakesAgain, here, the “friend heuristic” works well. If all their friends are of the same race, political party, religious group, shop at the same grocery store, read the same books, have the same phone, listen to the same music, laugh at the same jokes — then stay away. These people are likely to be followers, not leaders. They might be smart, accomplished, and hard-working … but they might be so worried about being popular that they are unlikely to do something which requires major risk.

Given a choice, most people will make friends with people who most closely resemble themselves. A recent study by researchers Angela Bahns, Kate Pickett, and Christian Crandall shows that students at large universities have less diverse friends than people at smaller colleges. The authors reason “when opportunity abounds, people are free to pursue more narrow selection criteria [in forming friendships], but when fewer choices are available, they must find satisfaction using broader criteria.”

This strengthens the efficacy of the “friend heuristic.” It takes a contrarian to have a diverse set of friends.

Charles Darwin, a contrarian of his time, apparently practiced a form of the “friend heuristic.” He said: “a man’s friendships are one of the best measures of his worth.”