Day 045 - Unpacking subconscious and involuntary social cues

Submitted by Sam on 5 July, 2011 - 00:07

We react to numerous social cues that we give off and perceive during conversation, but often only subconsciously. Unlike the easy-to-fake facial expressions that give indications of our emotional state, many of these signals – such as as variation in the tone and pitch of the voice and gesture mirroring – are transmitted involuntarily, and if we were able to consciously process and analyze them we might have a more holistic understanding of the dynamics of social situations, and perhaps might react more deliberately. Various technologies have been developed to capture and process these signals programmatically, driven by a proven ability to raise group productivity in commercial environments by drawing attention to and elucidating a previously unconscious layer of social interaction.

Vertex Data Science, a multi-million pound private company based in the UK and one of the largest providers of call centre outsourcing in the world deployed such socially-decoding technology in 2006 to analyze the speech patterns of its telephone operators. Alex Pentland and his colleagues from MIT's Media Lab developed the equipment to measure variations in tone and pitch, the physical voice signal, not the semantic content nor the logic of the conversations themselves. After only a few seconds of such audio data the team were able to accurately predict the ultimate success or failure of almost every sales call.

The sensors revealed that people are less susceptible to meaning and reasoning than they are to the unconscious and instinctual aspects of communication, showing in particular the technology’s commercial value by demonstrating how telephone operators could increase their sales performance by consciously controlling previously unconscious aspects of their communication, learning to vary the tone and pitch of their voice in the manner of the most successful callers.

Other work from the team supports this evidence, showing the subtle differences between successful teams and ineffective teams, revealing new ways in which companies can train and support collaboration in order to out-compete rivals using a new type of computer-augmented social awareness. A year before the Vertex Data Science deployment, the team worked with researchers from the MIT Sloan School of Management with similar equipment, recording and analyzing the bodily movements and tone of voice of participants and again ignoring the meaning of the spoken words themselves. The participants were assigned to play a middle manager taking a new job, and another playing the role of a vice president of that division. Their task was to negotiate the middle manager's salary package, with real monetary rewards on offer to motivate the actors. Whilst the negotiations could last for hours, the team's electronic sensor took only a few minutes to predict with 87% accuracy which party would win the negotiation, demonstrating how empirical data can lead not only to a more reliable understanding of how businesses work, but also how the unconscious side of human behaviour may one day be fully soluble through the aid of new technologies.

Attribution Noncommercial Share Alike
This text, Day 045 - Unpacking subconscious and involuntary social cues, by Sam Haskell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.
Drupal theme by Kiwi Themes.