We recently came across an article in Wired Magazine by Peter Thiel (of Paypal fame and early investor in Facebook) with some very interesting conclusions.
Briefly, he mentions how the best and brightest of our society tend to shoot for elite universities like Harvard, where they then proceed to interact with people more or less just like them and, as the years go by, they tend to reinforce their own principles and become more and more similar. This may seem both obvious and good. We agree that it is obvious. Most of us associate with people similar to ourselves, and studies have been performed to show that most people do the same around the world.
The second point, that it is good for the best and brightest to keep hanging out with the best and brightest, however, might not be so good. Thiel points to a study of entrepreneurs, which showed that those who associated with the most varied groups of people (in different clubs, associations and different activities) tended to be the most innovative. He then ties this back into Harvard, where he says the lack of interaction with diverse people (not necessarily diversity of race or gender, but of interests, goals, etc.) will limit the potential of these best and brightest. He ends with: “Perhaps Bill Gates knew what he was doing when he dropped out of Harvard.” Continue reading →
The Friendship Paradox states that your friends have more friends than you do.
Despite sounding like (and being called) a paradox, this actually makes sense mathematically, as well as in real life.
Imagine two people you know: one, called Becky, is a complete extrovert who talks to everyone and loves to go to bars and party and is quick to strike conversation with pretty much anyone. The other, let’s call him Jason, is an introvert, and grumpy to boot. He prefers to stay at home and only leaves the house to be with one or two people whom he trusts, with no desire to meet new people.
It stands to reason that Becky will have more friends, and that you are more likely to have met and be friends with Becky. Jason, on the other hand, will have very few friends, but there is a much lower chance that you will ever get to meet him. Therefore you are more likely to know the more popular people.
What makes the Friendship Paradox interesting is its applications in real life. The Economist reports that epidemiologists can use this paradox to detect flu outbreaks earlier. Rather than choosing a random sample of people to detect their health, they will ask a random sample of people for a random sample of their friends. These friends proved to be, on average, more popular, and therefore more in contact with other people. Tellingly, the infection rate among this group of popular friends peeked two weeks earlier than the population as a whole (and the original random sample).