Understanding ‘Honest Signals’ in Business

New research reveals the surprising power of ancient — and largely unconscious — forms of human communication.

What if you could “see” the rhythms of interaction for people in your work group? In your entire company? Members of my research group and I have done just that by developing technology tools that allow us, for the first time, to gain a dramatically new perspective on human behavior. These tools have revealed subtle patterns in how people interact, enabling us to predict outcomes of situations ranging from job interviews to first dates to business plan pitches. To illustrate, consider our study on business plan pitches. In that study, a group of rising-star business executives gathered at MIT for an important task: Each executive would present a business plan to the group, and then the group would choose the best ideas to recommend to a team of venture finance experts. It was a great opportunity. The skills the executives required — the ability to clearly formulate ideas, effectively communicate to a group of peers and then persuade others to pursue those ideas — are indispensable in business as well as everyday life. These executives had each spent more than a decade building their strengths. Not only the other group members were watching and evaluating the business plan pitches, however. A sensitive, specially designed digital device was also monitoring each presentation. This device — we’ll call it a sociometer — wasn’t recording what each person said in their presentation but rather how they said it.1 How much variability was in the speech of the presenter? How active were they physically? How many back-and-forth gestures such as smiles and head nods occurred between the presenter and the listeners? This device was measuring another channel of communication that works without spoken language: our social sense.

How the Sociometer Works »

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i. T. Choudhury and A. Pentland, “Characterizing Social Networks Using the Sociometer” (proceedings of the North American Association of Computational Social and Organizational Science, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, June 10-12, 2004). See http://hd.media.mit.edu.

ii. Choudhury and Pentland, “Characterizing Social Networks Using the Sociometer”; M. Laibowitz, J. Gips, R. Aylward, A. Pentland and J. Paradiso, “A Sensor Network for Social Dynamics” (proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Information Processing in Sensor Networks, Nashville, Tennessee, April 19-21, 2006), 483-491; and D. Olguín, J. Paradiso and A. Pentland, “Wearable Communicator Badge: Designing a New Platform for Revealing Organizational Dynamics” (proceedings of the 10th International Symposium on Wearable Computing, Montreux, Switzerland, October 11-14, 2006). See http://hd.media.mit.edu.

iii. Olguín, Paradiso and Pentland, “Wearable Communicator Badge.”