Or, you know, the jeans.
What got me thinking today was word of a new study suggesting that one of the reasons we birds of a feather flock together could be more than a common interest in flying south. It turns out, there’s often genetic similarity in the folks we choose as friends. As in: we may be genetically predisposed to like the stuff we like — and choose our friends accordingly — a phenomenon that keeps us trapped in our own private “us group”.
Clearly, this can’t always end well.
In the study, published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors addressed the fact that people disposed to alcoholism befriend folks who like to drink. Not a surprise: you like to throw down a few cocktails, you tend to hang out with those who like them, too. But here’s the interesting thing. Apart from the social behavior, when the researchers analyzed genetic traits, they found that long before the future drinkers even began to raid their parent’s liquor cabinet, they tended to choose friends who shared the same genetic predisposition:
For example, a person with a genotype that makes her susceptible to alcoholism may be directly influenced to drink. However, she may also be indirectly influenced to drink because she chooses friends with the same genotype (homophily)who are more likely to make alcohol available to her.
Okay, words like genotype and homophily make us want to reach for the Pinot. So let’s go over to Time.com, which referred to the phenomenon as “Friends with (Genetic) Benefits.“ In that post, James Fowler, one of the study’s authors, told Time that we might choose our friends not only because we share the same interests — but because we might have some similar DNA:
The [genetic link to alcoholism] makes sense, says Fowler, since it’s true that “if I’m more impulsive, I might choose to be with friends with others who are more impulsive.” Another way that such a gene might affect friendship is that impulsive people might be drawn to the same types of environments—for example, amusement parks— and tend to make friends with others they find there. Not surprisingly, a kid who sneaks beer and cigarettes in the high school parking lot and drag races on weekends is unlikely to befriend the guy who spends all his time with the chess club.
Not surprising, right? But, says Fowler:
“There can be a feedback effect. We know that [this gene] shows an association with alcoholism. Now the evidence here is that if you have this gene, your friends are more likely to have it. You’re not only susceptible biologically to this behavior, you’re also more likely to be surrounded by people who are susceptible to this behavior.”
And there you go. You’re destined to drink too much, you gravitate towards those eventually who will, too. Next thing you know, Leaving Las Vegas. But let’s leave the lab (and the bar) behind and extrapolate a little, about what happens when we’re stuck in bubbles of our own making. Genomes notwithstanding, unless we watch out, do we still surround ourselves with those who like what we like, drink what we drink, and dress like we do? You get the picture. Skinny jeans, anyone? Yes, please.
In a way, this bubble business smacks of the tyranny of the echo chamber, which can be its own kind of trap. We wrote about this before, riffing on a piece in Marie Claire by Lori Gottlieb (of “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” fame) that suggested that girlfriends often serve as one another’s “yes women”. Our point was this: When we surround ourselves with people like us, such as those likely to tell us what we want to hear, can we ever really figure out for ourselves what we want to do with our lives (or for that matter, even what to wear to class?) As we wrote last summer:
We know we all do it: seek out certain company for certain dilemmas. Beau’s pissing you off? Call your resplendently single pal or the one who never liked him. Uncertain over whether to wed? Call in the smug marrieds. Want to quit your job even though you have no prospects? Call the pal who’s done it. You get the point: We can’t get past the temptation to surround ourselves with those willing to preach to our own private choir.
As we wrote before, where it all gets dicey is when our bubble, like the echo chamber, becomes the norm. When we are surrounded by folks who are just like us, who think like us, who dress like us, and who tell us what we want to hear, how hard is it to make a decision that doesn’t follow what’s predesigned, that doesn’t conform — and to be happy with that decision if we do? Are we ever able to trust our gut? Break from the pack?
Which leads us back to that genome study. I’m not sure that I buy this stuff about our friendships — and our behavior — being completely predetermined by our DNA. But I do know this. When we’re stuck in a bubble, of our own making or not, it’s pretty hard to figure out for ourselves who we really are, what we want to do with our lives (we wrote a whole book about this) or even what we wear. Yep, most days you’ll find me in my skinny jeans. But what I really like are my flares.