Homophily or #1 innovation enemy

Summary: What is Homophily? How does it affect us? and how can we fight it?


Image courtesy: gapingvoid.com

Next time you’re in a meeting and everyone is saying ‘yes’ to an obviously dumb idea, know that just because there are lots of them it doesn’t make it right. ~ Hugh MacLeod

It’s interesting how sometimes the world conspires to bring something in front of your eyes. After getting this cartoon from gapingvoid’s exquisite newsletter few days back, -along with the quote- I remembered an interesting article I read on conformity and deviance.

At meetings the members of the group adopt a soft line of criticism, often even on their own thinking. People are positive and seek harmony on issues, with no conflict to spoil the “we” atmosphere.

This is what we usually refer to as Group-think. And it has been proven that it is symptomatic of lesser creativity in the workplace. Does this mean that a group needs to be heterogeneous for innovation to be catalyzed? Yes, to some extent, but not entirely.

If members join the group and have nothing in common at all, then obviously joint action will be impossible

The equilibrium between conformity and deviance needs to be reached, so that the job could be “done” in a rather “innovative and creative” way. But as any balance, it is difficult to hold. We human are built to evolve in small groups (what we call in graph theory clusters or cliques) looking for familiarity, safety and intimacy. Sociologists coined “homophily” to describe such phenomenon.

Homophily (i.e., love of the same) is the tendency of individuals to associate and bond with similar others. – Wikipedia

What is interesting about Homophily is that although it’s intuitive, it can do us more harm than good. In a compelling article, Ethan Zuckerman states that being part of a social circle of similar others “has a tendency to isolate us from certain pieces of information. At the same time it tends to fool us into believing that we have a complete picture of things when we don’t”. 

Combine this with the fact that a big percentage of our knowledge today comes from social Networks and you’ll know how powerful and dangerous Homophily has become. The thing is, just like group-think (which is a consequence of Homophily) innovation is hindered by the lack of diversity. 

One needs always to challenge the barriers of his thoughts and avoid flocking to similar people. A good way to start would be by:

Being counterintuitive in your readings. We have the tendency to enjoy reading what validates our mental models. Try reading from all currents of thoughts, you never know how new ideas can be jolted and it sure is a good way to discover preconceived ideas you may have.

Diversifying your social contacts. If you’re a techy, look for literature, physics, teaching… buddies. One thing we’ve learned from academia is that the lines between disciplines are way more blurry than we think. Raise chances for serendipity.

– Always challenging the status quo. If you’re satisfied with the way things go, know that you’ve contracted the birds-of-a-feather-flock-together syndrome. Quick, you need remedy!

Rethink, Rework, Evaluate. Whenever an “eccentric” idea hits your radar (from external or internal sources) fight the urge of blocking it right away. Rethink the issue in all its aspects, rework the idea to make it fit your context, apply and then evaluate so you can enhance your system. 

– Exposing yourself, Don’t give in to your lizard brain. Fight that urge to be part of the herd and to take the 0 risk path. Rather expose yourself! It is only by taking such risk that one can make a step further and hopefully innovate. 

I’m sure there a lot of other ways to fight Homophily, but one thing is sure, Christopher Morley does a good job summarizing them:

Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to be always part of unanimity.


Lamia Ben