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Published: August 29, 2007


The Science of Subtle Signals

In short, people have two distinct “channels” of communication — the obvious verbal and rational channel, through which information flows linguistically, and a nonlinguistic channel that we often ignore, but that carries at least as much information.

From an anthropological point of view, it’s not surprising that a lot of human influence takes place nonverbally. Apes, chimpanzees, and other primates — our close evolutionary cousins — lack anything like our facility for language, yet still lead sophisticated social lives. They organize groups for hunting, collective defense, and child rearing. All this takes place through nonlinguistic means, by displays of power, meaningful noises, and facial expressions. Instincts for this kind of communication enabled humans’ ancestors to form strong, cohesive groups, and human beings still possess those instincts, alongside more recently evolved talents for language and reason.

Some of the most famous social psychology research of the last century documented the extent of group influence on individuals. For example, in a 1951 experiment directed by Solomon Asch at Swarthmore College, researchers asked experimental subjects to say which of three lines on a paper matched the length of another line, using lengths so different that the correct answer was obvious. If they heard a number of people give the same wrong answer, many people followed along with the crowd, completely ignoring the clear input of their senses. Recent experiments conducted with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines by Gregory Berns of Emory University suggest that peer pressure can alter how people actually see the lines.

In other words, people in group situations don’t consciously weigh the options and then deliberately (or timidly) choose to conform. Instead, the conforming happens automatically and unconsciously. Those dy­namics happen so often, and so consistently, that they inevitably play a role in the ways people make decisions in the business world. But this unconscious behavioral channel is generally ignored in most management thinking; even a writer like Gladwell, whose work often falls at the nexus of business and psychology, didn’t recognize that these behavioral channels are so obvious that they can be picked up by machine.

The idea of using sensors to capture these subtle signals began to emerge in the late 1980s. At PARC, a young researcher named Mark Weiser coined the phrase “ubiquitous computing” in 1988; he distributed electronic badges that transmitted information about where PARC employees were walking, so that people working there could see crowds forming on electronic displays. Weiser, who later became PARC’s director of research, passed away in 1999; by that time, other researchers, including John Seely Brown, Xerox’s chief scientist, and Alex Pentland at the Media Lab, had begun linking ubiquitous computing with the emerging idea of social network research, tracking the patterns of connection in informal communication among people.

Pentland began developing technology to probe network influences after an experience in the early 2000s serving on the board of a Media Lab initiative to create spin-off laboratories overseas. Nothing in that initiative had gone quite as planned.

“We had some of the most brilliant and powerful people in the world,” he recalls, “but our work was a disaster, just an incredible disaster. People were making decisions that were, on the face of it, ridiculous. Two days later you’d think, ‘How in the world did I go along with that?’ It was as if your brain had been turned off.”

Pentland’s board experience led him to recognize the enormous power of nonverbal communication. The leading directors were all extremely charismatic and certain of themselves; everyone else went along with whatever they said, almost without thinking. “This ex­perience really affected me,” says Pentland. He began studying the scientific literature on nonlinguistic human communication, a body of research that is extensive, but mostly qualitative. And then he focused on building devices to measure that communication. “You need instruments,” he says, “because as people we can’t really observe others objectively.”

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  1. Edward Baker, “When Teams Fail: The Virtual Distance Challenge,” s+b Leading Idea, 5/22/07: An intriguing example of organizational sensibility: Far-flung teams are more effective when members feel operational or cultural affinity. Click here.
  2. Mark Buchanan, The Social Atom: Why the Rich Get Richer, Cheaters Get Caught, and Your Neighbor Usually Looks Like You (Bloomsbury USA, 2007): The author of this article lays out the knowledge of patterns of behavior in social systems, based on models, observation, and quantum physics. Updated on Buchanan’s Weblog. Click here.
  3. Tanzeem Choudhury, Matthai Philipose, Danny Wyatt, and Jonathan Lester, “Towards Activity Databases: Using Sensors and Statistical Models to Summarize People’s Lives,” Data Engineering Bulletin, March 2006: Summary of Intel research on “smart environments.” Click here.
  4. Malcolm Gladwell, Blink! The Power of Thinking without Thinking (Little, Brown, 2005): On the human propensity for snap judgments, which sensors may enhance — or degrade. Click here.
  5. Art Kleiner, “Elliott Jaques Levels with You,” s+b, First Quarter 2001: Source of the quote about 17th-century science and modern management. Click here.
  6. Karen Otazo, “On Trust and Culture,” s+b, Autumn 2006: Overview of the literature on social network analysis, studying organizations by tracking “who you know.” Click here.
  7. Alex Pentland’s MIT Media Lab home page: Source on the Human Dynamics Group and relevant papers. Click here.
  8. Connectedness Weblog: Definitive blog on social network analysis trends by researcher Bruce Hoppe. Click here.
  9. Managerial Network Analysis: Steve Borgatti’s Web site, with links to his research. Click here.
  10. “Remembering Mark Weiser,” 1999: Memorial site for the pioneer of ubiquitous computing contains a biography and links to sources of research and commentary. Click here.
  11. For more articles on organizations and people, sign up for s+b’s RSS feed. Click here.