Another well-deserved attack on rationality

February 18, 2009 | By | Reply More

Why do we do the things we do?  Why did you propose that woman, for instance? Or why did you accept a job offer from that man? The January 29, 2009 edition of Nature (available online only to subscribers) takes a look at this question in an article by Mark Buchanan titled “Secret Signals: Are People’s Interactions Driven by a Primitive, Not Linguistic Type of Communication?”

Scientists have determined that there is a second channel of human communication that (often) acts in parallel with our rational thinking and verbal communication.  It’s difficult to pin down power and scope of this non-linguistic ability, however. Recently, computer scientist Alex Pentland has started using wearable electronic devices in order to study our ability to communicate using non-linguistic behavior. It is Pentland’s aim to try to assist organizations to make better use of their personnel based upon this ubiquitous and powerful hidden communication.

Many people resist the idea that many of our choices are not determined by “conscious intentions and deliberate choices.”  It’s time to stop resisting, however.  For example, our behavior is highly determined by our social context rather than our innate “character.” On this topic I’ve often recommended an excellent book titled The Person and the Situation, by Lee Ross and Richard Nisbett.   See also, this earlier DI post titled “Laughing at not funny things, and the limits of introspection.”

Buchanan’s article points out that “the literature is full of experiments showing that conscious explanations for our behavior are oftendrinking-coffee just rationalizations invented after the fact.” He describes several classic experiments demonstrating this.  For instance, in the 1990s, students were asked to give reasons for liking or disliking their instructors. They tended to mention qualities such as friendliness or teaching ability, but the experimenters found that most of this was un-anchored rationalization. In fact, experimenters demonstrated that they could predict how 70% of the students would rate their instructors “just by analyzing the instructor’s body language in 30 seconds of soundless video.”  Pentland could predict, with 87% accuracy within five minutes, the outcome of a 45-minute mock salary negotiation.

Buchanan’s descriptions of these experiments reminds me very much of the work of psychologist John M. Gottman, whose “Love Lab” uses similar techniques for determining whether a couple is compatible.  Consider this claim from Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (1999):

I am now able to predict whether a couple will stay happily together or lose their way. I can make this prediction after listening to the couple interact in our Love Lab for as little as five minutes! My accuracy rate in these predictions averages 91% over three separate studies. In other words, a 91% of the cases where I have predicted that a couples marriage would eventually fail or succeed, time has proven me right. These predictions are not based on my intuition or preconceived notions of what marriage “should” be, but on the data I’ve accumulated over years of study.”

How is it that scientists can make these incredible predictions? Buchanan describes what he terms a handful of common social signals that predict outcomes in human interactions:

These signals include the “activity level,” effectively the fraction of time a person speaks; their “engagement” or how much a person drives the conversation; and “mirroring”, which occurs when one participant subconsciously copies and others prosody and gesture.

Why do so many people resist the nonlinguistic study of human communication? It’s an old and tiresome story– many people find it dehumanizing to understand human behavior in these terms, despite the predictive accuracy.  On the same point, consider this DI article on Terror Management Theory (TMT).

Pentland is well aware that not everyone has embraced this vision of a hidden, pervasive “second channel” in human affairs. Although the idea is reasonably well except for other animals, Pentland says that the reluctance to accept it and humans lies in part because of an inherent bias in how science looks at human behavior versus that of other species. “If our data were collected from ape troops,” he says, “and we altered the semantically loaded labels a bit, talked about “forage” instead of “work,” “food access” instead of “salary,” they would feel entirely unsurprising.”

Buchanan also points to the work by primatologist Frans de Waal of Emory University, who has determined that the other primates lead quite sophisticated social lives (in fact, they show signs of proto-morality) through displays of power, meaningful noises and facial expressions.” Buchanan quotes De Waal’s conclusion that it is “incredibly naïve to take conscious verbal communication as the primary way that people respond to each other.”  For more on De Waal’s work, see here and here.

[Photo used with permission of]

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Category: Communication, Human animals, Language, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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