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.”

28 thoughts on “The “Pretty Girl” Paradox

  1. Marshallk

    Auren, I almost stopped reading at the title, but didn’t and was glad to hear that intellectual diversity was the distinction being highlighted. When it comes to a spouse, I think engagement and curiosity are two other winning categories – though they could be included in your big picture.

  2. Paul Sack

    While good looks are relevant to choosing a girlfriend or mate, they are totally irrelevant to hiring or investing, in which i have considerable experience.

  3. Fred Smith

    Nice piece – heuristics for navigating through a world in which knowledge is useful (where to work, who to marry, who to befriend) are important, offering filters that help us allocate the subsequent effort to learn more about the pros and cons of such commitments.
    Heuristics, however, is critical for the political world where we’re all rationally ignorant, where the outcomes of some policy debate may well be important but we’ve little ability to influence that outcome and – are thus unlikely to spend much time educating ourselves. The late Aaron Wildavsky suggested that “value heuristics” allow individuals to get a “mile of opinion out of an inch of values.” He suggested that man’s prehistory had created at least four “cultural values”: the Fatalistic Value of endurance/accetance; the Egalitarian value of fairness/justice; the Hierarchic value of stability/order/tradition; and the Individualist value of freedom/responsibility. If (as the policy is framed and depending upon the values of the spokesperson giving that framing) the policy seems to advance our values, we favor it. If not, then not.
    In that context – the world in which “good” (as I see them) policies are either accepted or rejected in large part by their acceptance or rejection of the citizenry (that is, the rationally ignorant), it is critical to find communication strategies that seek to “communicate” (“educastion” is at best a second stage process). there’s much work going on in this area – Yale Law School Project on Cultural Cognition, CEI’s own Value Based Communication project – but marketing research is expensive and we’ve yet to find donors recognizing that in America’s value diverse polity, it is critical to find ways to communicate across value-divisions. People don’t care what we know, until they know that we care. Most of us do but we aren’t very good at communicating our concern in the political world – thus, the increasing bitterness of our elections.
    Auren, as you may know, that Value Based Communication research is something on which I’ll be spending much more time once CEI’s new president comes aboard (very soon now). Hope that will permit more time for blogging and commenting on interesting blogs like this.
    Hope to see you on a future west coast trip.
    Fred Smith, CEI

  4. Raja Doddala

    Great post. I found myself quickly looking at myself to make sure my friends are diverse enough -:)

  5. amaliahoffman

    Loved your article and the graphic.
    For the most part, we want a pretty girl business card, pretty girl title,pretty girl neighborhood to live in and a pretty girl to show off.
    In thriving for diversity, we let other looks into the beauty contest.

  6. Doug Chertok

    Great article Auren. And Happy Thanksgiving!
    The heuristic rings true on another level…career diversity and success.
    Growing up, my friends and I received lots of parental encouragement to take big corporate, life-long, steady jobs.
    Some of us didn’t, instead choosing to start, or work at, start-ups.
    Others worked at both big and small companies in different industries.
    Havent graphed it, but offhand upon reflection, the ones with the most diverse career paths seem to be doing best.

  7. Paul Witkay

    Great article! I totally believe in the power of diversity. Most new ideas come when dealing with something outside your normal experience. Most people tend to go towards people and things that make them feel comfortable. However, entrepreneurs and change-makers seek out people and experiences from which they can learn about things they know little rather than take the easy route. Innovation happens when people push on the boundaries and are forced to callenge their own assumptions about how life works.
    Keep up the good work!

  8. Tony Hsieh

    Great article, Auren. I use the chicken egg-laying example a lot when talking about building the best startup teams (the best strategy for producing the most eggs is to breed for the most successful cage of chickens, not to replicate the most productive chicken). Happy Thanksgiving!

  9. Auren Hoffman

    Fred: thank you for your comments. I haven’t thought about how this works in politics but I hope to be as eloquent as you in a future post.

  10. Auren Hoffman

    Tony: thank you so much for commenting — I am honored that the CEO of Zappos takes the time to read and give thoughtful replies on one of e-commerce’s busiest days of the year.
    When I look to build a culture and hire great people, i think of Tony and Zappos. Zappos is the gold standard.

  11. Richie Hecker

    Good post. Playing devils advocate for a minute – define homogeneous ? One person has a diverse and eclectic group of friends – that all happen to share the same characteristics (lets say Alpha & Unstructured). While they may not look or sound the same – they have an underlying thread…. And then on the flip side, there could be an argument that someone that is ‘completely’ eclectic can tend towards random….which isn’t necessarily better than organized and predictable (then you know what your betting on)

  12. Kat Steinmetz

    I’ve been reading your newsletters/posts for several years now, Auren, and I got an extra big smile today from your “Burning Man” reference in the section on “Hiring”. This is something we even pay attention to when we are hiring someone – diversity is good!
    Thanks for another great post!
    Head of Human Resources
    Black Rock City, LLC | Burning Man

  13. Skshtgr11

    Thanks for the reminder. Am currently sitting on a venture for which I’ve casually interviewed top staff prospects for three years. The casual approach is great if one has the time, but when staffing needs become time-imperative, things get tougher. Smith’s references were quite helpful, and your advice is very good.
    I consistently look for a few more things aside from the above listings. I want kindness and humor in my people along with the drive, intellect, problem solving abilities. And I look for life experience, how they handled themselves under duress…like these days.

  14. Imablogger

    At work, a ‘Pretty Girl’ was hired but she never showed up. I was confidentally told that upper management said good looking girls were not to be hired – too many potential problens. My first thought was, if this secret policy gets out to our women employees, there was going to be a serious morale problem. Then I realized that all of the other managers had been married multiple times and it was ‘lead me not into temptation’

  15. Catherine

    Interesting post Auren! While I would probably stick to the holistic and diverse-centered vocabulary, I get why the blog post title, etc includes “pretty girl”. The following three points were given as advice to young artists by John Baldessari, I would say you can apply them to partner hunting, hiring and investments: 1. Talent is cheap, 2. You have to be possessed which you can’t will, and 3. Being at the right place at the right time. 😉

  16. Frank Ramirez

    Look at large companies that always pursue policy of hiring from within. In major organizations the entire executive team is composed of staff that has been at the organization for 10-15-20 years. They go to same BBQ’s picnics, have kids in same schools, go to the same church, they are insular. Is it any wonder that when these organizations fail their failure is so systemic? Diversity works in the biological world to ensure survival and in the corporate world as well. When you date someone, look to make sure that the product of your relationship does not look exactly like you. We’re not looking for clones. The next generation should be better than the last, not the same.

  17. Mark Richards MD

    The idea is good. The C-brain (cortical) structure that allows us super predators to live in large groups is our “friendship center” and so does indeed tell us much about the underlying aspects of the “conscious” part of the brain.
    What other’s friendships may not tell us is the deeper, stronger motivations of the individual – as these are inside the voiceless general in charge of final decisions, our D-Brain (Darwinian or Evolutionary brain section that controls behaviors that allowed our survival for millions of years when other “homos” became extinct).

  18. Bill Kaplan

    Interesting “friend heuristic” although I think the analogy for hiring and investing seems pretty weak. If you’re hiring or investing, you can often get a good sense of the individual and the company based on “the company they keep.”
    Do you really want to invest in (i.e. hire) an individual whose friends include a bunch of alcoholics and slackers? Oftentimes an individual can come across great in an interview but has huge chinks in their armor that might best be revealed by his/her past and current relationships.
    Do you really want to invest in a company whose partners include other companies with questionable ethical and professional practices? Top companies often surround themselves with other outstanding individuals and performers and this is certainly where I would lean.
    Happy holidays,

  19. Varoujan

    Hi Auren,
    Article is trying to drive towards benefits of a diverse set of friends, but casts too wide a net for its own sake. Potential mate, company to work at, someone to hire, and a start-up to invest in are rather different animals. If I were writing the article I’d focus on one of these to tighten the logic of the piece. E.g. if I were investing in an entrepreneur, it’s more important for me to assess the CEO’s leadership skills, his being a visionary, his having had successful past exits, and knowing a few financial backers (all of whom could be white males from Silicon Valley for all we know), than whether he’s friend base is diverse.
    Within only the world of friendships, ‘friend heuristic’ is really appropriate for widening one’s circle of friends. I’ve used and continue to use this extensively, and even have a name for it. A Random Walk. In reality, though, for a more relaxed lifestyle (which type-A folks and entrepreneurs might undervalue), it’s also necessary to be close to individuals from one’s own background (birds of a feather) with whom less words are needed for faster and deeper understanding/sympathy/empathy.
    Furthermore, on the topic of being a contrarian, we each should choose our battles. One decides mostly to watch only foreign movies, another mostly to eat healthy, etc. I do know an individual who’s a contrarian on more issues than most, and let’s say, at best, it’s a challenge being around him, not to mention potentially being a challenge being in his shoes.
    Overall, suggest the article’s scope be narrowed, and a couple of examples added to each of the three points of the ‘friend heuristic,’ each example explaining what in this case is the pretty girl’ and what is not, and why going with the ‘not-so-pretty’ is the better choice.
    Hope this helps.

  20. Philippe_cases

    Hi Auren, thanks for your thoughts. I have always thought the same heuristic applies for Ivy leagues and the likabilities of those alumni for companies. If you are an alumni from an Ivy League, you have collected A from 100 different teachers and professors, from primary school to college, proof that you have adapted yourself to many different styles of teaching and personalities. By being so flexible, you are more likely to do very well and adapt to any type of management style. I would think it is the same with the diversity of your friends: having a diverse group of friends mean that you are curious enough and able to go beyond your comfort zone to connect and get along, which is an invaluable quality for an organization.

  21. Heidi

    Great article, most successful companies hire people with diverse backgrounds for that reason

  22. Alisha Forrester Scott

    It seems as though this piece lacks evidence of being emotionally intelligent. Life decisions made without thoughtful judgment is devoid of style, and is not a way to lasting happiness.

  23. Deepak Menon

    Hi Auren
    I’m from India and am of the firm opinion that to look for the so called “Pretty Girls” will result in trapping oneself in a box with preset boundaries – so we will continue living in the box, and by excluding those who do not follow the parameters we have set, we shall probably remain shortsighted and lose the one person who was born to bring lifelong joy and contentment to us, whether pretty of ugly is inconsequential.
    If it is a mate – we must never look for one – one day our eye will fall on someone and we shall make determined efforts and capture the priceless treasure of our lives – or vice versa!
    As far as companies and jobs and material things go – one would do well to examine all aspects from a 360 degree look in, before committing ourselves.
    Just an opinion for what it’s worth coming from a stranger
    Deepak Menon


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