Drinking Beer with the President and Other Flaws of Relatability

Relatability. It's the hottest thing, and everyone wants it. Film stars, social media celebrities, companies and brands - even Presidential candidates. They all want, even need, to be relatable. And why wouldn't they? You'll follow someone on Twitter if they're similar to you and unfollow someone on Facebook who doesn't agree with you. You'll buy a product from a brand that "gets" you. You'll hire the person who reminds you of you.

It's not only fashionable to care about relatability. It's borderline essential.

But I worry that "relatability" has become too relevant. Because the more we put "us" at the center of our decision-making, the less we pay attention to things that might really matter.

Take, for example, what happens every day in a court of law. Criminal defense attorneys in particular know well the role that relatability plays during a legal proceeding. How a defendant is dressed, wears their hair, or carries themselves (including their facial expressions) all have an impact. But the rules of criminal procedure are specifically designed to encourage rational decision-making by jurors and judges. By rational, I don't mean the opposite of irrational or crazy. I mean making decisions without bias or prejudicial influence, by reason instead of heightened emotion. I mean judging a case on the facts so we don't repeat the Salem witch trials. But when decision-makers are swayed by the relatability of a defendant, even as our entire legal system is hell-bent on preventing sway, how comfortable are we in saying that justice was served?

If you are shocked that Robert Durst was acquitted for killing and chopping up his neighbor, for example, then you might be interested to know that the defense strategy in that case was to make everyone else in Durst's story less relatable and likeable than Durst himself. And it worked. Relatability is why trials involving minority defendants and mostly white juries are so controversial. It's why litigation attorneys take care to know as much as they can about each judge they appear before. It's why jury consultants make money.

The phenomenon of liking people who are "like you" is called the "homophily principle," and is recognized by social scientists and biologists as widespread not only among humans but also other species. Socially, we are more likely to attach ourselves to people who not only share our attributes (gender, race, age) but also our values and beliefs. Homophily explains who our friends are and which friendships we let go of, who we date and marry, and from whom we seek support at work. It might also explain who we will vote for in the upcoming Presidential election.

But homophily results in homogenous social networks that prevent us from being exposed to new and sometimes better ideas, perspectives, or experiences. Homophily on a broader social level can generate an unnecessary sense of "us" versus "them," creating damaging social divides among race, gender, class, or ideology. Also, as we often see in courtrooms, by placing too much importance on attributional or attitudinal "sameness," we may overlook the importance of other things that matter much more.

During the 2000 Presidential race, I asked Bush supporters I knew why they were voting for him. Most told me it was because he was a regular guy, a lot like them. One said "he's the kind of guy I could hang out and have beers with." I thought about all the people I went drinking with at the time, and trust me, they were great, but you do not want them in the Oval Office.

I don't want anyone like me in the Oval Office either. That person would blow it, because though I'm a lot of things, Presidential material is not one of them. "Like me" won't help me determine someone's criminal guilt or innocence (I plead the fifth). And I've overlooked many critical flaws in friends and romantic partners to my detriment, for the sake of being around someone who was "like me" in other ways.

Seeking out what's relatable hasn't always worked for me. So I'm going to try an experiment. I'm going to follow people on social media who are different, either by their appearance or their views. Maybe they'll frustrate me. Maybe I'll frustrate them. But that's ok. I might learn something new. I might also get to meet people with whom I can't relate, but who have hearts of gold. That would be cool.

If you disagree with what I'm saying here, find me on Twitter (@nikakabiri) and we'll hash it out, human to human. Because no matter how different we might be, we will always have that in common.