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Summary of Secret Signals

Secret Signals, written by Mark Buchanan, explores the ways in which modern technology attempts to predict human behavior. Buchanan does this by recounting how computer scientist Alex Pentland, together with his team, has studied real-life settings to gauge the power of persuasion. From his Web site, Pentland said they have invented the technology called “reality mining” that analyzes sensor data to reveal how humans will behave. They call these patterns “honest signals” that have evolved from non-human primates, which influence their decision-making (Pentland).

According to Pentland, “Human behavior is much more predictable than is generally thought” (Buchanan 528). This is because a person’s responses can be explained by the non-verbal behavior of other people. This is the “second channel” of human communication that was previously studied in laboratories but now given new light with the use of modern technology, which includes electronic badges, PDAs, mobile phones (Buchanan 528), and digital media, which can reveal a “gods eye” view of human behavior (Pentland).

Psychologist John Bargh seconded the idea, saying that human behavior is not dictated by “conscious intentions and deliberate choices but by mental processes put into motion by the environment” (Buchanan 528). This has been proven by many experiments that verify the fact that humans tend to rationalize after an act is done. As for Pentland, he has been studying secret signals since 2000. One of their first experiments took place in a call center in U. K.

where they placed small electronic devices to sales representatives to measure variations in their tone and pitch but not the words they said. Still, they were able to predict whose call will land in sales. Because of this study, call centers now use this knowledge to sell more products effectively. Due to this and other successful experiments, Pentland and his team were able to predict outcomes of sales pitches, bluffing in poker, and subjective judgments of trust, among others (Buchanan 529).

However, Pentland believes his idea cannot be accepted by all because there exists an inherent bias in how science views human behavior as opposed to that of other species. Yet these species such as apes, chimpanzees, and other primates are a clear evidence of how behavior is dictated by the second channel as they maintain sophisticated lives even without language but with meaningful noises and facial expressions. Pentland though suggests that future studies explore social interactions in bigger groups.

For example, a study in a German bank focuses on personnel’s personal characteristics as connected to group creativity by using sensors. The result of such experiment will provide managers more reliable ways to predict personnel behavior; hence, enabling them to form the most creative teams. Pentland said that the fear of personnel altering their behavior with knowledge that they are being observed is overblown as they do not know what was being recorded and what ways data will be analyzed.

However, psychologist Bernard Rime claims that Pentland’s findings are not new as studies of non-verbal communication have been around for decades. It is only the use of technology that makes his experiments novel. Yet predicting human behavior will not be simple because the numerous factors of “past experiences, personal habits, inherited traits, intellectual abilities, and shared knowledge” (qtd. in Buchanan 530) come into play; hence, it is impossible to do so.

While Pentland agrees, he argues that they observe people in real-life contexts over periods of time and finds reliable and directly predictive relationships. He notes though that their kind of experiment enables companies to spy on employees. Hence he wishes that they use the technology and data properly. These technologies, he concludes, should be respected and used to gain more understanding of human interaction and behavior.

Works Cited

Buchanan, Mark. “Secret Signals. ” Nature 457 (2009): 528-529. Print Pentland, Alex. Prof. Alex (Sandy) Pentland. http://web. media. mit. edu/~sandy/. 21 July 2010.

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