Nation of Beancounters

Why do birds of a feather flock together?

Posted in Uncategorized by Navin Kumar on June 30, 2013

Let’s assume that (a) people vary along some invisible attribute – honesty, sex drive, propensity to work hard etc. Furthermore, let’s assume that (b) people project their preferences onto others – honest individuals believe that human beings are “basically honest” and so on. They believe that such people like them are “normal”.

Let’s make all these people randomly interacting with each other, with the option of repeating the interaction if they should so wish. Suppose that (c) in conversation, people end up signaling (consciously or not) what they consider “normal.” Individuals within their range have no problem, but (d) people outside it feel uncomfortable – if you have a high sex drive, you’re not going to comfortable around those who consider you a “pervert” or “slut”. People cease interacting with those who consider them “abnormal”. Thus the only people who interact repeatedly with each others are those who fall in each other’s range of “normal” i.e. people very similar to each other.

As a result of these handful of simple assumptions, we now have a population in which those who repeatedly interact with each other are very similar to each other. Thus, birds of a feather flock together. This model supports the proverb, “tell me who you spend time with, and I’ll tell you who you are.”

A few related points:

(1) One might argue that people with similar tastes tend to “flock” because they have something in common to talk about. This might well be true but the purpose of this model is to explain how people with similar attributes, rather than preferences over different kinds of goods or activities, congregate. People may never talk about such attributes at length. Of course, it’s possible that attributes correlate with tastes.

(2) There are many things that proscribe the kind of friends (or romantic partners) we have – where we work, where we went to school etc. Thus it might seem as if we have no say in what kind of people we can befriend. However, one is always friends with only some of those we interact regularly with. Furthermore, one chooses one’s workplace etc based at least partly on how we like our colleagues, the “atmosphere” or “culture” etc.

(3) There are, I believe, some simple predictions that serve as tests of falsifications – people who are less judgmental should have a wider variety of friends; people who have are well-read or have traveled a lot (and therefore have a broader idea of what is “normal”) should have a wider variety of friends; the larger the organisation a person works/studies at, the more likely that cliques will form.

(4) UPDATE: It is a mistake to extrapolate the experiences of others based on the experiences of oneself and one’s friends, since you may be very different from other people.

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3 Responses

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  1. Radhika said, on June 30, 2013 at 6:13 pm

    A question on method: How can you prove a hypothesis through a set of *assumptions*? Even if the assumptions are reasonable, the point of proof is to demonstrate something based on a set of assumptions, and not through them.

    Overall: In a way, I find it an absurd proposition to begin with. 1) Two people, no matter, how dissimilar, will always have at least one thing in common between them. This may be their love for Game of Thrones, or playing pranks, or reading, or their sense of humour, or their honesty etc. How do you identify what attribute it is that defines the “feather”, of which the birds flock together? If it could be *anything*, then the idiom becomes redundant, because it fails to describe a phenomenon at all.
    Having said that, attributes are different from interests. In which case, what brings two people of the same attribute together, while not two other people with the same attribute?

    2) The theory does not account for the fact that a lot of our personality/choices/preferences/attributes are *influenced* by the people around us. Thus, while we may not be similar to begin with (not birds of a feather), we may become that over time. In that case, while birds of a feather may still flock together for some one who sees them after the process, your analysis is silent on this.
    Think “one rotten apple”/ “bad fish spoils the pond” etc.

    • Navin Kumar said, on June 30, 2013 at 8:32 pm

      A question on method: How can you prove a hypothesis through a set of *assumptions*?

      You can demonstrate that an argument is valid by showing that, if they hold, your conclusion would be true. The aim of such modeling (if I can call it that) is to make an argument, while keeping the underlying assumptions as clear as possible. The next step is to show that the assumptions are true, which makes your argument sound. I’ve skipped this, since I regard the assumptions as being fairly reasonable.

      Is there any assumption that you find problematic?

      How do you identify what attribute it is that defines the “feather”, of which the birds flock together? If it could be *anything*, then the idiom becomes redundant, because it fails to describe a phenomenon at all.

      Based on this model? Any attribute which can mark you out as “weird” or “abnormal”. Indeed it’s rather hard to think of an attribute for which this is not true. If you have “abnormally” low height, you’re a dwarf, and to the best of my knowledge, dwarfs tend to hang out with other dwarfs. Blind people tend to hang out with other blind people and so on. Taste in music, race, the extent of one’s belief in God, clothing etc are things that people “discriminate” on.

      EDIT: Perhaps it would be more useful to explain what it wouldn’t filter out. It wouldn’t filter out completely invisible characteristics, like being abused as a child, or being homicidal. It also won’t filter according to universal characteristics, like loving puppies, or liking pizza.

      EDIT: I will admit, though, that this model has an “embarrassment of riches” problem. I can only reply that there are plenty of ways to falsify it.

      In which case, what brings two people of the same attribute together, while not two other people with the same attribute?

      In this model, chance.

      The theory does not account …. we may become that over time.

      Absolutely true. I don’t claim that this is the only, or even the primary, social dynamic at play here. Yet another theory is that people brought up in the same environment end up in similar environments. Which of the three (or unknown others) is stronger is an empirical question, for which I have no data.

    • Navin Kumar said, on July 1, 2013 at 1:50 am

      Two people, no matter, how dissimilar, will always have at least one thing in common between them. This may be their love for Game of Thrones, or playing pranks, or reading, or their sense of humour, or their honesty etc.

      True, but the question isn’t whether two people will have enough things in common, but whether there is something that is so different about them that it causes them to (unconsciously) not meet again. For example, I imagine that you’d find it hard to be friends with a sexist, no matter how deep his or her interest in sufi music or Bollywood.


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