Business Journal

The Impact of Unconscious Communication

A Q&A with Alex Pentland, Ph.D., Toshiba Professor of Media, Arts, and Sciences at MIT and author of Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World

How our unconscious gestures and expressions -- our honest signals -- affect business interactions

Eleven-time World Series of Poker champion Phil Hellmuth wears a hat and sunglasses when he plays poker. He does it to disguise his reactions from the other players, which might seem surprising. One would think that a man who can win 11 championships and more than $6 million over 18 years would be able to control his expression when he's on the job.

In fact, says Alex (Sandy) Pentland, Ph.D., Toshiba professor of media, arts, and sciences at MIT and the author of Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World, he can't. Nor can you. According to Dr. Pentland, our tiny, unconscious reactions can say more than we mean -- and they don't lie.

If you watch people's immediate reactions, what they nod their heads at, their honest signaling, you'll see what arouses them.


Dr. Pentland arrived at this conclusion after years of close people-watching. He did more than observe people talk (though he did a lot of that too). He and his students actually invented technology that measures and computes tone of voice, physical movement, and conversational momentum that gives scientists, in Pentland's words, "a God's-eye view" of human interaction. And what this view shows is that people communicate -- clearly and unconsciously -- through behaviors like nodding, accelerated speech, and fidgeting. We also change our own behavior and that of others by this communication.

In this interview, Dr. Pentland describes what honest signals are, how they work, why they can't be controlled, and how these involuntary signals change our perceptions of risk, reward, and trust. It may convince you to wear a hat and sunglasses to work too.

GMJ: How are honest signals different from body language?

Alex Pentland, Ph.D.: Body language, as most people mean it, is actually an adjunct to language. The big difference between what people usually mean when they talk about body language [versus] honest signals is that you can consciously manipulate the former. You can't do that with the kinds of honest signaling I'm talking about. People are very, very bad at knowing how aroused they are or being able to control how smoothly they deliver information.

Honest signaling happens without us thinking about it, so we're not much aware of it. That's the core of what makes it honest. It's involuntary, and even if we try to control it, we're not very good at it. For instance, when we looked at people playing poker for money, they still were lousy at controlling their back-channel signals.

GMJ: In your book, you wrote that venture capitalists "normally only invest in companies they can regularly visit." Why is that?

Dr. Pentland: There are two reasons. The first is that if you can't actually see the managers and the team in a normal situation, you don't get a sense of the unconscious interactions between them. All you see are memos and business plans and things like that. Even listening to people talk, the words and the arguments and the things they say don't give you a very good sense of what's going on. [But] if you watch people's immediate reactions, what they nod their heads at, their honest signaling, you'll see what arouses them. That gives you a much better sense of how they feel personally about what they're doing.

You can tell how a group feels when you put something out on the table. If they feel it's good for them personally, they get excited, and there's this little mimicry that they do, nodding their head, going "hmm, yeah, hmm." What that's telling you is that those people feel like this would be good for them -- and you had better pay attention to that. If everybody's telling you that, you should listen. Those are the initiatives that get the most traction. Otherwise you've got an uphill battle. You've got to educate people, you've got to change the way they think, you've got to change the incentives, and you still probably won't win.

GMJ: You also wrote that venture capital investments made without a personal connection are likelier to fail. Why?

Dr. Pentland: This honest signaling, this unconscious communication, actually changes people. For example, if I sit down with you, and we have a conversation, and I say, "Yes," and you say, "Yes," and you nod your head, and I nod my head, we both get a little fired up, because these things are a bit contagious. That unconscious communication actually changes our perception of risk, reward, and trust, which are the core of any sort of business decision. So, although we like to think of ourselves as rational and logical and so forth, engaging in this honest signaling back and forth literally changes our perception of each other.

If you look at some of the older business cultures, such as [those] in the Middle East and Asia, where the legal systems aren't quite as crisp and clean and responsive as they are in the United States, what do they have to rely on? Personal characteristics and social networks. They have to rely on circuits of trust between people that circle back and fix you within the social fabric. And the wisdom of that is that those things build trust between you and [your] business partners, and it makes them more likely to behave honestly. A lot of talking doesn't just give you a sense of the person; it literally changes their attitude towards you.

GMJ: It seems like this is the kind of thing one could control -- tone of voice, gesturing, etc.

Dr. Pentland: We've done a number of experiments where people tried to change their signaling, and they've been pretty much abject failures. If you're paying that much attention to your signaling, you can hardly talk straight. It takes so much concentration to change normally unconscious behavior that it's hard to think about anything else at the same time.

The hypothesis is that charismatic people are really good at sensing and sending off the appropriate signals.


However, there is a way to change signaling, and it's fairly easy: You can think of what you're doing as method acting. If you put yourself in a social role that you're familiar with -- the hard-headed boss or the never-say-die guy -- then your signaling will automatically change along with that.

Now the Catch-22 is that when you put yourself in that role, your perceptions of risk and reward and your choices about what you should do also change. So for instance, doctors with bad bedside manners tend to get sued a lot. So hospitals put them through empathy training, which basically consists of method acting. It sounds cynical, but the truth is that if you change your perception of things, it changes your behavior.

GMJ: But do those doctors still make the same medical decisions?

Dr. Pentland: No. They actually make different decisions. It's amazing. This is true in all sorts of roles. Because -- back to the venture capitalists -- if you put yourself in a particular role, it will change the way you make decisions about things. The unconscious changes the conscious, but your conscious can change your unconscious through this notion of adopting a role. And it's easy. If you know that social stereotype, if you can put yourself into that persona, it will go smoothly. And it's easy; it's not stressful at all. And you're not even conscious of it once you're into it.

GMJ: Is that why you recommended in the book that negotiators should bring someone with them?

Dr. Pentland: Well, that's what high-end people do. If it's important and you have some real financial incentive, it's typical to bring somebody with you who watches. He or she might occasionally pass you notes that say "You think you're connecting with the guy across the table from you, but the guy to your left isn't getting it." And what is he or she watching when that happens? What the guy on the left is signaling.

In contrast, if you go to the United Nations and you watch the interactions there, it's unbelievably boring because they've done absolutely everything they can to get rid of the signaling. The decision makers don't sit at the table. They don't talk to each other directly; they talk through translators. When the decision makers do talk, they all have little set speeches [that] they give for fixed periods of time. They don't allow back-and-forth interactions between themselves because they don't want to let any information out from unconscious signaling. They've done everything they possibly can to get rid of charisma and persuasiveness.

GMJ: About charisma -- is that a form of social signaling? Or a persona? Or an acquirable skill?

Dr. Pentland: There are people who are charismatic. And they will tell you things in their charismatic way, and you will tend to believe it, which science has established repeatedly. Third parties can observe it, people are pretty consistent about agreeing when it's there and [when it's] not, but nobody knows exactly what charisma is.

The hypothesis is that charismatic people are really, really good at sensing and sending off the appropriate signals. When we looked at people pitching business plans, we found that the consistency of the presentation and the flow that they had was tremendously important in being convincing. It made people think that they knew what they were talking about. And similarly, the energy that they brought told people about their enthusiasm and whether they actually thought it was a good idea. So if you combine those things, you get this wallop of signaling that tells you this idea is great, it's by people who know what they're talking about, and they're enthusiastic about it, so you ought to believe it too.

GMJ: So when you're giving a pitch, which of these two scenarios is more predictive of the outcome: the way a group behaves when an idea is first presented or the way it behaves when discussing it later?

Dr. Pentland: The right answer is that's a broad question. But if I had to guess, which is what you want me to do, I would say that they're probably equally important. It's sort of mind-boggling that all the conversation and discussion [after the presentation] matters about as much as the immediate reaction [to it].

But think about it for a minute -- the immediate reaction is what occurs when people think about what's in it for themselves. Well, if you see everybody thinking it's good or everybody thinking it's bad, that tells you where you're starting from. And the only thing that's going to change this perception is if in the subsequent argument, people come to see the proposition as different than they first thought.

You sometimes see this in conversations. People are talking and talking and talking, and then somebody says something and everyone says, "Aha, I didn't understand it before," and then you get a very different reaction. If the perception of a proposition changes, then the reaction to it changes.

But it's complicated. It's not like your life is run by unconscious signaling -- that's not true. But it's also not true that your life is run by conscious responses.

-- Interviewed by Jennifer Robison

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