Mark Buchanan is a theoretical physicist who writes about how physics can be used to understand biology, economics, psychology and other social sciences. His book, “The Social Atom: Why the Rich Get Richer, Cheaters Get Caught and Your Neighbor Usually Looks Like You” is a fun read in the style of The Tipping Point and Freakonomics. In an article entitled Science of Subtle Signals, Buchanan chronicles the work of Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland at the MIT Media Lab who is challenging the prevailing wisdom on organizational effectiveness.
Traditional models of human behavior assume people are primarily influenced by reasoning and logic. In other words, “it’s what gets said that matters, not how it is said.” However the MIT researchers have shown they can predict the outcome of sales calls with 87% accuracy – without hearing a single word.
The researchers developed small, wearable electronic devices to accurately observe behavior. The devices gather a wide range of information, including tone of voice, body language, the ways people interact, and the time spent on tasks. This so-called science of subtle signals shows that participants with the highest ratio of listening to speaking and with the most voice fluctuation were the most successful in their tasks. In other words, what the participants said was less important than how they said it.
In marketing we could apply subtle signals to focus groups, consumer surveys and product design. Rather than relying on participants’ written or vocal responses, the sensors could be used to understand how people physically respond to a product. This might dramatically improve accuracy, as participants tend to self-report skewed results. However, using sensors to track subtle signals would likely cause privacy concerns which reduces their practical use.
I’m interested to hear from you. Would you wear sensors to have a more productive workplace?