The science of subtle signals

The science of subtle signals suggests what you say is less important than how you say it.

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. 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. 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. The researchers dubbed this the science of subtle signals.

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. While this might work in controlled environments, using sensors to track subtle signals in everyday environments would likely cause privacy concerns, reducing their practical use.

I’m interested to hear from you. Would you wear sensors to have a more productive workplace?

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6 Responses to The science of subtle signals

  1. Esteban Kolsky (@ekolsky) January 6, 2013 at 10:37 pm #

    in essence you already are, if you had a smarter employer. since most of us have migrated to become knowledge workers, and we believe that computers are the source/repository of knowledge, everything we do (and how we do it) is recorded by the way we interact with computers (to a certain extent – there may be a need to capture voice for inter-person processes and communications, but those can be changed to become also part of the computer ecosystem).

    these recordings, these data, are not being used right now for many reasons (only one of which is the big brother / spookish factor), but if they were — we would definitely know a lot more about how we feel and what we feel than if we just guessed (as we do now).

    no need to wear sensors, well – for the most part 🙂

  2. xfactorselling January 7, 2013 at 8:25 am #

    Reblogged this on xfactorselling and commented:
    Great article, very Interesting! There are a lot of behavioral patterns and algorithms that can be useful to marketing and selling. Also a great book on these types of studies is “Blink”.

  3. Sandra Harriette January 8, 2013 at 7:43 pm #

    I think my new workplace could benefit from anything than would make them more sensitive overall. I.t baffled me from day 1 just how much it’s accepted to yell at the customer.

  4. kevinjenscox January 9, 2013 at 8:38 am #


    Great blog. I am big believer in this. Before the availability of today’s technology for analyzing unstructured data, I would have categorized this “serendipity” or “intuition” because to me it is only the human mind that has the ability to notice these signals and synthesize them to deduce the opportunity. It falls right into the bucket of what many would call “fate calling”. The hardest part in all of this is the ability to spot the tell tale signs– recognizing their importance and assigning a probability to it. I would surmise that many have built their careers and experience on developing this as an innate ability. Now a days it looks like we are on the verge of being able to do this technology. Quite exciting.

    Best regards,
    Kevin Cox

  5. cranstonholden January 13, 2013 at 2:52 pm #

    great post

  6. omasilani January 16, 2013 at 4:00 am #

    Reblogged this on Oblate "obeezy" Masilani.

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