Understanding ‘Honest Signals’ in Business

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

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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 »



1. 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.

2. A. Pentland, “Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World” (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2008), Appendix B.

3. W. Baker and R. Faulkner, “Social Networks and Loss of Capital,” Social Networks 26, no. 2 (2004): 91-111.

4. A. Pentland, “On the Collective Nature of Human Intelligence,” Adaptive Behavior 15, no. 2 (2007): 189-198.

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6. Pentland, “Socially Aware Computation and Communication”; and A. Pentland, “Automatic Mapping and Modeling of Human Networks,” Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and Its Applications 378, no. 1 (2007): 59-67.

7. Pentland, “Collective Nature.”

8. A. Pentland, “Social Dynamics: Signals and Behavior” (proceedings of the International Conference on Developmental Learning, Salk Institute, San Diego, California, October 20-22, 2004). See http://hd.media.mit.edu.

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12. M.D. Gershon, “The Second Brain” (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1998).

13. M. Sung and A. Pentland, “PokerMetrics: Stress and Lie Detection,” MIT Human Dynamics Technical Report 594 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT, 2005); and R. Fraguas Jr., C. Marci, M. Fava, D.V. Iosifescu, B. Bankier, R. Loh and D.D. Dougherty, “Autonomic Reactivity to Induced Emotion as Potential Predictor of Response to Antidepressant Treatment,” Psychiatry Research 151, no. 1-2 (2007): 169-172.

14. Frackowiak, “Human Brain Function.”

15. T.L. Chartrand and J. Bargh, “The Chameleon Effect: The Perception-Behavior Link and Social Interaction,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 76, no. 6 (1999): 893-910; T.L. Chartrand, W. Maddux and J. Lakin, “Beyond the Perception-Behavior Link: The Ubiquitous Utility and Motivational Moderators of Nonconscious Mimicry,” in “The New Unconscious,” ed. R. Hassin, J. Uleman and J.A. Bargh (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 334-361; and L.C. Tummolini, C. Castelfranchi, E. Pacherie and J. Dokic, “From Mirror Neurons to Joint Actions,” Cognitive Systems Research 7 (June 2006): 101-112.

16. V. Gallese and A. Goldman, “Mirror Neurons and the Simulation Theory of Mind-Reading,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 2, no. 12 (1998): 493-501.

17. Chartrand, Maddux and Lakin, “Beyond the Perception-Behavior Link.”

18. J. Bailenson and N. Yee, “Digital Chameleons: Automatic Assimilation of Nonverbal Gestures in Immersive Virtual Environments,” Psychological Science 16, no. 10 (October 2005): 814-819.

19. J. Curhan and A. Pentland, “Thin Slices of Negotiation: Predicting Outcomes from Conversational Dynamics Within the First Five Minutes,” Journal of Applied Psychology 92, no. 3 (2007): 802-811.

20. Bailenson and Yee, “Digital Chameleons.”

21. Chartrand and Bargh, “Chameleon Effect”; and Chartrand, Maddux and Lakin, “Beyond the Perception-Behavior Link.”

22. Pentland, “Social Dynamics.”

23. S. Barsade, “The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion and Its Influence on Group Behavior,” Administrative Science Quarterly 47, no. 4 (December 2002): 644-675; and S. Reicher, S.A. Haslam and M. Platow, “The New Psychology of Leadership,” Scientific American Mind (August 2007): 22-29.

24. P. Briñol and R.E. Petty, “Overt Head Movements and Persuasion: A Self-Validation Analysis,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84, no. 6 (2003): 1123-1139.

25. A. Zahavi and A. Zahavi, “The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin’s Puzzle” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); and M. Lachmann, S. Számadó and C. Bergstrom, “Cost and Conflict in Animal Signals and Human Language,” PNAS 98, no. 23 (November 6, 2001): 13189-13194.

26. R. Bird, E. Smith and D. Bird, “The Hunting Handicap: Costly Signaling in Human Foraging Strategies,” Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 50, no. 1 (2001): 9-19; and H.C.J. Godfray and R.A. Johnstone, “Begging and Bleating: The Evolution of Parent-Offspring Signaling,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 355, no. 1403 (2000): 1581-1591.

27. Pentland, Choudhury, Eagle and Singh, “Human Dynamics”; K. Ara, N. Kanehira, E. Megally, Y. Poltorak, G. Singh, R. Smith, D. Suzuki, M. Mortensen, M. Van Alstyne and A. Pentland, “Sensible Organization Inspired by Social Sensor Technologies,” MIT Media Lab Technical Report 602 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT, Spring 2006); Olguín, Paradiso and Pentland, “Wearable Communicator Badge”; and M. Buchanan, “The Science of Subtle Signals,” Strategy+Business 48 (autumn 2007): 68-77.

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.”

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