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Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World (Bradford Books) Hardcover – 30 Sep 2008


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: MIT Press (30 Sept. 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262162563
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262162562
  • Product Dimensions: 13.7 x 1.4 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 60,517 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"Pentland's lucid treatment of complicated psychobiological principles effectively enables lay readers to grasp difficult but significant concepts... Similar in scope to Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Pentland's book is better-suited and recommended for university collections." Library Journal

About the Author

Prof. Alex (Sandy) Pentland is a pioneer in mobile information systems, technology for developing countries, consumer health, and smart environments. One of the most-cited computer scientists in the world, with international awards in the Arts, Sciences and Engineering, he was chosen by Newsweek as one of the 100 Americans likely to shape this century.Prof. Pentland's focus is the development of human-centered technology, and the creation of ventures that take this technology into the real world. His work provides people with a clearer picture of their social environment, and helps companies and communities to reinvent themselves to be both more human and productive.He is founder of more than a dozen companies, research organizations, and academic communities, and is Founder and Faculty Director of both MIT's new Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship, and of MIT's Human Dynamics Laboratory.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By S. Yogendra VINE VOICE on 7 May 2010
Format: Hardcover
This book belongs - very, very broadly - in the same space as Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational and to some extent, from an application point of view, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's Nudges. The common thread that binds them is an exposition of what lies behind human decisions and how those decisions can be better understood and possibly influenced.

The core thesis of Honest Signals, by MIT Professor Alex Pentland, is that much human communication and decision making is about signals. Signals such as clothes and cars can be deliberate and planned, or influenced by emotion or culture. But not the unconscious or uncontrollable biologically based "honest signalling" which has evolved from ancient primate signalling mechanisms. The stories quoted are from the data collected by the author and his team using a device called a "sociometer" which is described in some detail in Appendix A in the book.

In the first four chapters, Professor Pentland describes: main kinds of social signals; how they can be combined for signalling social roles; how an understanding of the signals and social roles can help read people better; and how group dynamics works and evolves. In the following three chapters, he focuses on how networks, organisations and societies could be explained or could use the proposed thesis.

Books based on science and research are now commonly organised such that a good half of the book comprises explanatory or technical appendices and a bibliography. This book is no exception. The 98 pages of main text, including an epilogue that makes an important point that much current technology is socially ignorant, are followed by 52 pages of appendices rich in research context, 13 pages of notes to appendices, and 14 pages of bibliography.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on 19 Mar. 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Alex (Sandy) Pentland opens your eyes to a new way of looking at communication. It is humbling to realise that the complex decision making processes that we believe set us apart from the apes actually work in exactly the same way. Once you realise you see it everywhere.

If this sounds like another BS body language interpretation theory with no evidence you couldn't be further from the truth. Through gathering hundreds of thousands of hours data with portable electronic devices and detector, the MIT Media Lab team have uncovered the basic modes of behaviour humans display: the "eigenbehviours". (Techies will note the similarity to Pentland's earlier and massively influential work on "eigenfaces").

Without this being a criticism of the book, this research has a long way to run and I am sure that more data and maybe mass adoption of enabling technologies (assuming the critically important privacy issues can be resolved to common satisfaction) will reveal more layers of understanding of our behaviour. There are also many steps to making use of this knowledge. This book is a fine start and has opened the door: we must now walk through.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Mannesis on 24 Aug. 2010
Format: Hardcover
A number of novel insights on the use of 'sociometers' to gauge human behaviour. Most interesting for me on the decision theory dimensions and the possibility of integrating social network analysis to psychology.

A certain bias on work at MIT I found distracting as this is not where most of the important work in the field has been conducted. Like other reviewers I found similarities with the arguments by Dan Ariely on 'predictably irrational' and although not sufficiently mentioned the work by Kahneman and Tversky. 'Honest signals' may be a catchy brand-name but most work exposed here discusses subliminal signals, so not strictu sensu honest ones but only metaphorically unaltered, assuming an agent is not good at concealing their subliminally controlled behaviours of course. My other 'concern' is that extensive work on psychology and social networks hardly gets a mention, like the work of Krakhardt or Kilduff.

A good introduction into an interesting field never the less. Enjoyed the extensive appendices and references to some of the decision literature I had not come across before.
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Not only have I enjoyed every page of this book, but I have bought several copies for friends and colleagues.

There is so much pseudo science talking about body language (e.g. the urban myth that 93% of communication is non-verbal) that it was marvellous to find a book that is based upon soundly based research and takes you through both the findings and how you can use these in practice in everyday life.

In my work I am often called upon to help senior executives and professional service firm partners to both understand and improve their personal impact and to develop the right skills to influence colleagues and clients. I found a tremendous amount of real value in this book. It requires careful reading to note and to understand the important principles that are set out in its pages. In my view this is well worth the time and the effort.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 25 reviews
38 of 38 people found the following review helpful
More details please 4 Feb. 2010
By Lori A. Williams - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I was very excited to read this book. I had heard about the research from NPR and wanted to know the details. I was trained as a scientist and I love seeing how other scientists communicate their ideas to the public.

I was hoping this book would answer questions I had after hearing the NPR piece. How did the researchers get the idea to look at nonverbal signals in the first place? Which signals tend to be most predictive? Are there nonverbal signals that I give out that I might want to change depending on context?

After reading this book, including the appendices, I'm sad to say I still don't have answers at a level of detail that is satisfying to me. I don't really have ideas on what I could do differently, nor do I have enough info to convince another scientist (read - my husband) that the research is solid. The book was long on hypothesizing about applications of the work, but short on the science. While the authors gave many details about their statistical methods, I wanted more information about how their sociometers worked, what the data looked like that came out of the devices, how they processed that data and what kind of decisions they had to make in data collection and processing.

I may have been a little harsh in judging Honest Signals. I read it immediately after reading Gary Klein's Sources of Power, which is an examplar of popular science writing for the public (If you have any interest in human decision-making, I highly recommend it.). But all in all, the research this book is built on is fascinating, but the book left me disappointed.
27 of 33 people found the following review helpful
Idiots and Gossip (Plus Other Tales from the Sociometer) 4 Jan. 2009
By Science Fiction and Marketing - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Idiots and gossip represent the biggest danger to idea markets and networked intelligence says MIT Media Lab Professor Alex Pentland in his findings, "Honest Signals." Of particular note is that in large groups behavioral dynamics can cause for less than stellar results via bad ideas introduced (idiots) and shared sources that repeat the same information over and over again (gossip). Anyone who has questioned the 2.0 echo chamber or wisdom of crowds can identify with these issues, yet Pentland demonstrates networked intelligence is superior to the individuals.

Honest Signals reveals findings from a new technology called the Sociometer that measure human behavior, including overwhelming proof that humans do not make rational, logical decisions, instead opting for a base networked form of primal signaling amongst ourselves. This empirical evidence proves collaborative use of body language and other signals are more important in communications and decision making than theories of messaging and big man management. Further the findings bulwark the collaborative trends we are seeing in the social web, which brings us back to idiots and gossip.

Anyone who has participated in Twitter or a highly engaged wiki environment can see this networked intelligence at work. And often the wisdom of the crowd can go astray in a bit of a frenzy or simply put, bad group-think. So the question becomes how to improve idea markets for better collaboration, performance and use, an activity the Media Lab, Intel and Hewlett-Packard are all actively trying to solve.

The idiot factor -- introduction of bad ideas -- can easily be weeded out by performance. Someone who cannot deliver good intellectual capital simply loses credibility (idiot image by Geoff Greene).

The gossip factor seems to be much tougher. While "me, too" may count as approval, the sociological problem lies in a variety of societal pressures (cliques, etc.) and subjective mental quirks. One idea spread across many is not many ideas, rather it's still only one alternative and its popularity may be temporal.

For those who lament the echo chamber, we have to be discerning in large distributed environments and community idea markets like the blogosphere and Twitter, respectively. It's important to source ideas and understand which ones come from independent sources and which ones are simply, "me, too" theories.

A couple of tips from Honest Thinking include 1) tight social groups rarely have multiple unique ideas and 2) make sure you use different sources of information than some other friends/acquaintances in the echo chamber. Number two is something I manage diligently in my Google Reader, quickly purging blogs which start miming other voices. You'd be surprised how many top bloggers actually present "unique" posts that in actuality seem to trailing other lesser known, more original thinkers.

Other Findings

Perhaps more relevant for the general communicator are the base sociometer findings, "that a great deal of human behavior is either automatic or determined by unconscious processes." Many, many people in sales and marketing subscribe (including me) to what can be called a emotional sentimentality to decision making. But there's never been a science to it, instead positioning, messaging theories, sales training or "positivity" memes.

Ever walk out of a meeting where you picked up on a piece of information conveyed to the group that was crucial for a decision, but that teammates missed? These "sales skills" or what others have even called voodoo actually demonstrate a sensitivity to the honest signals people are conveying, according to the sociometer's findings.

"If we think about expert poker players again, we see that they are good at recognizing what patterns of play are unfolding, as well as predicting how likely future draws of cards are favorable." - Alex Pentland.

These signals translate across one-on-one meetings, workgroups, and friend circles all the way to large enterprises. Consequentially, great decision making really represents an unconscious ability to digest and extrapolate the signals across diverse groups of people and situations. The "decision maker" is simply tapping the broader experience of the whole rather than sitting atop an ivory tower.

Honest signals also impact our use of communication toolsets and technologies. Pentland argues many of our tools have yet to be designed for the trues signaling we engage in as human beings, and that hopefully in the future, they will evolve to better harness our idea markets and networked intelligence.

This book is simply fascinating. I could (and may) blog quite a bit more on it. I highly suggest any business leader or communicator who wants bleeding edge intelligence read this book.
22 of 27 people found the following review helpful
Beyond "Pop Science" 11 Sept. 2008
By Benjamin Waber - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This book goes through the most recent (about last 5 years) research of Prof. Pentland's group in the MIT Media Lab. It's a quick but extremely engaging read, and in contrast to other pop science books like Freakanomics and Predictably Irrational (both of which are interesting reads), Honest Signals has the scientific details of the experiments that it talks about, in the form of a thorough 50-page appendix. For anyone interested in how sensing technology will change business and the sciences or who's interested in learning how people actually interact with each other, this is a must read.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Good premise, unfulfilled promise 20 Jan. 2011
By S. Yogendra - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book belongs - very, very broadly - in the same space as Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational and to some extent, from an application point of view, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's Nudges. The common thread that binds them is an exposition of what lies behind human decisions and how those decisions can be better understood and possibly influenced.

The core thesis of Honest Signals, by MIT Professor Alex Pentland, is that much human communication and decision making is about signals. Signals such as clothes and cars can be deliberate and planned, or influenced by emotion or culture. But not the unconscious or uncontrollable biologically based "honest signalling" which has evolved from ancient primate signalling mechanisms. The stories quoted are from the data collected by the author and his team using a device called a "sociometer" which is described in some detail in Appendix A in the book.

In the first four chapters, Professor Pentland describes: main kinds of social signals; how they can be combined for signalling social roles; how an understanding of the signals and social roles can help read people better; and how group dynamics works and evolves. In the following three chapters, he focuses on how networks, organisations and societies could be explained or could use the proposed thesis.

Books based on science and research are now commonly organised such that a good half of the book comprises explanatory or technical appendices and a bibliography. This book is no exception. The 98 pages of main text, including an epilogue that makes an important point that much current technology is socially ignorant, are followed by 52 pages of appendices rich in research context, 13 pages of notes to appendices, and 14 pages of bibliography. All in all it took about an hour and half to read the book.

One of the limitations of the book is due to the compact treatment. The description of the theoretical premise pitched in the book is interesting enough but the stories felt incomplete, half-told. Quite reminiscent of how an academic thesis includes a section that describes future research possibilities; that section really is an admission of the limitations of the thesis, whether imposed by time or scope definition or something else. The author of a book for popular consumption really doesn't face these limitations hence the dissatisfying experience. There is also not enough time spent on what in real life could be done with a sociometer or the findings of Professor Pentland's research with it.

Usefulness note: The book successfully articulates the concept of primate signalling and provides a quasi-framework that can be put to use in some situations. For instance, it may be handy in several situations including watching politicians and businessmen, and as the author points out, in social and work situations such as negotiation and dating. However if someone then tries too hard to "implement" the framework, it is hardly "honest" signalling and it can all potentially backfire. Recommended for a quick read on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Abstract signals 30 Nov. 2008
By Michael Waghorne - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I had seen good reviews of this book and was expecting something better. It struck me as being too abstract. It might have been better to merge the main text with the annexes so that more concrete connections could have been made - and some more details of the concrete examples would also have helped.
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