In the 1950s, sociologists coined the term “homophilia” (from the Greek “homo” for same and philos for “love”) to explain our tendency as humans to seek out people who are like us. And in their classic 2001 article on this topic, “Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks,” sociologists Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and James Cook wrote, “Similarity breeds connection” and ” result is that the networks are homogeneous.
It is therefore quite normal to seek out and listen to our own “Amen choir” where friends and even colleagues say “Amen” every time we express an opinion or tell a story. It’s comfortable, it’s natural and it’s human.
But when it comes to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DCI), the Amen Choir can prevent a diverse workforce from successfully collaborating and creating an environment where, as Professor Frances describes it Frei of Harvard Business School, people of all races, gender, sexual orientation, and socio-economic background not only feel safe, but welcome, celebrated and even cherished. I will write more on this topic in an upcoming column that will provide solutions to the tendency of homophilia to hamper DCI’s efforts. For now, I’ll give a basic overview of Why we tend to associate with people we think are very similar to each other.
First, the why. Homophilia has its basis in neuroscience. In other words, it’s all in our brain. Glenn Fox, a neuroscientist and professor at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, has studied this topic extensively. He explains that group membership is “a) automatic, b) unconscious and c) flexible. We almost instantly sort people based on their physical characteristics, and research has shown that there may even be an order of preference for gender, race, attractiveness, age, etc. . that we run automatically and unconsciously.
The automatic and unconscious aspects of homophilia are pretty self-explanatory, but the flexible part is less obvious. Prof. Fox explains: “What’s interesting is that the flexibility of this one can be of great importance. For example, if we have USC students rating USC people against UCLA hats, that may become the most important group membership characteristic and all the other effects of belonging to a group will play with this as a key differentiator. In other words, in this case, membership in the USC group may trump race, gender, and other physical characteristics as a key differentiator.
But without the hat, we’ll likely go back and tend to pick people of the same race, same gender, etc. Why ? For some reason, homophilia may produce what a group of researchers have called “fitness benefits” because “people using the same mode of communication may be able to act together more effectively. These benefits are sometimes called synergy. “On the other hand, researchers claim that heterophilia, literally ‘love of the other’, can be beneficial because” it gives rise to specialization or the gains from trade, such as when a farmer interacts with a baker, when different scientists collaborate, or when individuals at different stages of the life cycle interact.
A related concept from social psychology further helps us understand how people develop strong social bonds. The “proximity effect” is a theory that explains human affiliation by the propensity of people to form relationships with those they meet regularly in their daily lives.
Different types of proximity exist, from residential proximity, in which people living in the same neighborhood tend to associate more easily, to acquaintance proximity, where particular bonds are formed by people having repeated interpersonal interactions or supported. Numerous studies have been carried out to assess various proximities and their effects, and with regard to the work environment, professional Proximity is most interesting for organizational psychologists. It explains the predisposition of people to forge links with those they meet most often in their professional work, depending on either their shared tasks, belonging to the same collaborative team, or something similar. simple than being placed in the immediate vicinity of a workspace. . And given the current debate over the hybrid work environment, it’s worth noting that research shows that “virtual proximity” produces a weak effect that does not match physical nature.
The result is that a powerful combination of homophilia and closeness almost certainly predisposes your organization to be too cohesive – whether you like it or not. And because it is well established that diversity leads to innovation because people from diverse backgrounds offer different types of products, services and markets to serve, managers must prioritize challenging this propensity to homogeneity in order to increase the diversity of their teams. It’s not easy – homophilia and closeness are powerful forces that can hamper even the most well-meaning diversity efforts.
However, as USC’s Glenn Fox concludes, “We may be wired for homophilia, but in this case the kind of ‘sameness’ we gravitate towards is very flexible. Noticing when we are inclined to categorize someone or use a group-based qualifier to describe someone gives us the opportunity to think critically about the cues we use. It might be a natural thing for our brains to do, but it’s still something we can work with while avoiding judging ourselves. “
To which I say: “Amen! “, we can autocorrect when it comes to that natural human instinct. And this leads to the question of knowing exactly How? ‘Or’ What homophilia, however hard-wired, hinders our efforts to improve IEI – and what organizations can do about it. Stay tuned, more on this next week.