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Understanding 'Honest Signals' in Business

New technology tools are offering insights into the power of ancient forms of human communication that Pentland calls honest signals. In this excerpt from his new book Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World (MIT Press, October 2008), Pentland describes how he and other researchers have been using a device called a sociometer to gain a new perspective on human behavior. (The sociometer is a wearable badgelike device equipped with sensors; it measures factors such as body movement and the amount of time people spend talking face-to-face.) Studies using data from sociometers show that certain types of subtle social signals affect outcomes significantly in a variety of settings, from business plan presentations to salary negotiations.

Pentland focuses on four types of honest signals: influence, mimicry, activity and consistency. Influence, in this context, refers to the degree to which one person’s speech patterns in a conversation influence the other party’s. Mimicry is the extent to which one person copies another’s gestures and movements — such as head nodding or smiles — during an interaction. The activity variable reflects humans’ tendency to show increased activity levels when interested, and consistency in speech or movement may be a sign of focus, as well as of less openness to others’ influence.

Such social signals are surprisingly powerful. For example, Pentland describes a study conducted by researchers Jeremy Bailenson and Nick Yee at Stanford University, in which students were shown a three-minute video encouraging them to carry their student identification card. Some students were shown a standard animated video, whereas others saw a video in which the animated figure mimicked their gestures four seconds later. Simply adding the mimicry feature caused the sales pitch for the ID card to be 20% more effective.

Understanding the power of these nonverbal forms of communication can enable us to better design organizations, Pentland concludes. However, it is an open question whether we will use the new insights this type of research provides for good or for ill.

Article 50118. The MIT SMR article was excerpted and adapted from Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World by Alex (Sandy) Pentland, published October 2008 by The MIT Press. Copyright in the name of The Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All rights reserved.

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