Category Archives: empathy

Honest signals: our hidden, influential patterns of communication

(photo by shadowplay)

(photo by shadowplay)

Interesting lunchtime talk by Alex (Sandy) Pentland about honest signals sponsored by the Program on Networked Governance program at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Sandy’s theory is that 50,000-100,000 years ago, humans lacked language, yet still managed to communicate with each other through “honest signals” (ancient primate signaling efforts which developed biologically to communicate our intentions, our trustworthiness, our suitability as a collaborator, whether we were bluffing, etc.). When language was introduced, it didn’t over-write or eliminate these honest signals but evolved to be synergistic with these signals. While we focus much more on language, these signals are measurable (Sandy’s group developed machines to read these signals) and often equally or more effective at predicting various behaviors than language. Sandy’s research aims to shine a light on this powerful channel that we know less about.

Sandy notes that such data from electronic ID badges (sociometers) and specially-programmed smart phones, can give us a “god’s eye” view of how the people in organizations interact, and observe the “rhythms of interaction for everyone in a city”.

What are such behaviors?

Sandy’s group at the MIT Media lab focuses on 4 of them, although there are probably others (laughter, yawning, etc.).

  1. INTEREST, shown by activity. An autonomic response. For example in children, this is evinced by jumping up and down or in dog’s by barking or wagging tail.
  2. ATTENTION, by looking at influence. Evidence of thalmic attention. Sandy observes that people actively following in conversations break in faster than they could with normal attention spans. Shows that they are processing the conversation and discussion as it goes along and predicting the right time to break in.
  3. EMPATHY, as shown by mimicry. This is evinced by mirror neurons, which are observable in infants as young as 3 hours old that can imitate a mother sticking her tongue out. People who evince higher levels of mimicry are seen as more empathic and more trustworthy. For example, they had computerized agents trying to sell an unpopular policy to students; in the cases where the computerized agent mimicked the body movements of the experimental subject with a 4 second delay, the computerized agent was 20% more successful in selling the policy to the experimental subject and the subject was unaware that he/she was being mimicked.
  4. EXPERTISE, as shown by consistency. This a function of the cerebellar motor. We assume that people who can do things more smoothly are more expert because of the number of actions that need to be simultaneously coordinated.

What do these honest signals predict?
These are only some of the examples:
-Computers attentive to these honest signals (and ignoring the content) were as successful in predicting from pitches by entrepreneurs which business plans would be judged by business school students as successful.
– Effective sales pitches: listening to the first few seconds of a telephone sales pitch (without listening to the language) but listening to tone, timing, etc., the computer could predict with 80% accuracy which would be successful calls.:
-Success in speed dating: monitoring the female’s signals predicted 35% of the variation in which couples exchanged their phone numbers, and this was significantly higher than any other factor researchers could find. Interestingly, the men’s signals were not predictive, but somehow men must have been able to subconsciously pick up on the women’s signals, because in almost all cases the men didn’t ask for phone numbers where it wasn’t reciprocated by women.
– They also found that honest signals predicted depression, predicted who was likely to be successful in negotiating for a pay raise, job interviews, who was bluffing at poker, etc.
Successful individual-level traits: they found that the most successful folks with these “honest signals” were ones who were high in activity, high in influence (others were more likely to mirror their communication styles then they were likely to mirror others’) high in “variable prosody” (their pitch varied and they sounded open to ideas), and high in body language dominance (i.e., they were more likely to directly face another person and others were more likely to not face them square on).  They were often far more successful in these “honest signals” than they were aware of.

Organizational effectiveness

Sandy notes that unlike an MRI, one can hook up an entire organization to these sociometers and absorb micro-second by micro-second, and the results are highly predictive. But the challenge is that while the people who exhibit these highly successful individual traits are useful to organizations, they are usually in “connector” roles for organizations, with star-shaped patterns of communication, where ideas flow through these individuals. While this speeds up the decision-making process, it actually impairs the brainstorming process. Sandy’s group is experimenting with devices to see if making participants aware of the dynamics of a team can influence their behavior in a positive manner.  They have shown with some experiments (Japanese-American teams designing Rube-Goldberg-type projects, and distance teams) that it can change people’s behaviors in a positive manner. The challenge will be to see if the group’s behavior can be more connected at the brainstorming phase and more “star-shaped” at the decision-making stage.

Sandy noted that they have been able to extract many properties of the social networks using smart phones: from a combination of where people are (GPS), when, and communication flows (who they talk to and when). He noted some interesting experiments to observe the flow of nurses in a nursing ward, or the flow of taxis in San Francisco, or communication (e-mail and face-to-face) between departments in a German bank. They are now at the stage of trying to get whole dormitories or parts of the city of Boston using these smart phones to try to track social networks and patterns in these data. (I’ve written about digital traces before.)

How could these flows of people be used:

Traffic: one could monitor, for example, delivery vans coursing through the road networks and by observing flows slower than typical, spot emerging traffic problems.

Urban tribes: Sandy noted that by monitoring flows of taxis, you can distill separate patterns of interconnected places. In other words people who live in this neighborhood, work in this area, go to these restaurants, go to these nightclubs. (You are not actually monitoring individual people but patterns of association.  This is equivalent to Netflix telling you that people who like “The Firm” also like “Michael Clayton”.) Or one can even find sub-patterns in a neighborhood:e.g., locations from which people regularly are returning from nightclubs at 3 or 4 AM.

-You can then use these patterns to “find people like me”: based on your own patterns (where you work, where you live, etc.), the system could tell you where many people in your neighborhood shop, go to dinner, or hear music.

Lending: one major bank told Sandy that credit scores are not very good (except at the high end) in predicting repayment rates on loans. Banks would love to use behavioral information (who is at nightclubs late at night, who goes to work early) to predict repayment rates.

Health insurance: similarly one could imagine rates tied to activity levels (who was jogging or getting enough sleep or…)

Germs: they want to use these devices to watch the spread of germs through social networks.

Privacy issues

The above examples of health insurance and lending make one understand why there are clear privacy implications. Do we want banks or health insurers knowing what we are doing (going to nightclubs) to set our rates? Will this be used to impose behavioral bases for “red lining”, where people in certain areas (like the old red lined areas) don’t get loans because of some behavior of theirs that is correlated with low repayment rates? Does it make any difference if these people can supposedly change their behavior?
-Sandy thinks we should move from company owning the personal data and sharing with no one or only sharing if an individual didn’t say it was confidential to the person owning the data and being able to decide how it gets used and whether the owner gets compensated for such use.
-There are clearly issues here about how the decision is framed? Does the individual truly understand why certain marginal information is so useful to a bank or insurer? And there may be negative externalities for all, even if you don’t choose to share your information with these companies?

Sandy’s research also raises questions about what happens when you start incentivizing people in companies based on these behaviors, or you start teaching people about these hidden “honest signals”. Do people start learning how to display these honest signals and dupe people who are not as aware of this (e.g., mimicking others to increase sales or do better in negotiations). If so, do people start focusing on these behaviors (like mimicry) and consciously teach themselves not to be swayed by this? Do companies find that people who pretend to be connectors (to get a pay raise) are actually less valuable to companies than the people who do it naturally (and are unaware they are doing this)?

See previews of Sandy’s book Honest Signals here.

Buy Alex (Sandy) Pentland’s Honest Signals here.

See interesting related story in NYT, “You’re Leaving a Digital Trail. Should You Care?” (John Markoff, 11/30/08), mentioning Alex Pentland’s work among others and discussing the SF taxi example.

Why we help others and what we think about those that do?

There have been two nice pieces recently on the helping instinct: “The moral instinct?” in the NYT magazine (by Harvard’s Steven Pinker) and a video talk by Daniel Goleman.

The Moral Instinct

Steven Pinker notes that three individuals have done a lot of good: Mother Teresa (with all her work with the poor in India), Bill Gates (through his philanthropy around diseases and technology) and Norman Borlaug (who most people have never heard of but who has ushered in a green revolution in agricultural productivity that has saved a billion lives in the developing world). Pinker notes that our moral views of these individuals are clouded by how much we know about them and whether they are embued with a saint like halo in the case of Mother Teresa or Bill Gates’ profit-making motive. Our judgments ignore the fact that Mother Teresa often avocated suffering and treated people in harsh conditions: her missions offered “their sick patrons…plenty of prayer but harsh conditions, few analgesics and dangerously primitive medical care.”
The article highlights how brain scanners, game theory, evolutionary biology and neuroscience are being used to understand how we make moral judgments.

Pnker notes that moral action requires a neural switch that forces us to classify actions as “immoral (‘killing is wrong’), rather than merely disagreeable (‘I hate brussels sprouts’), unfashionable (‘bell-bottoms are out’) or imprudent (‘don’t scratch mosquito bites’). It requires us to have a universal sense of right and wrong. Pnker says it also requires that one think that the immoral actor needs to be punished, although while I agree that is a common reaction, it is not essential to seeing this action as immoral.

“The psychologist Paul Rozin has studied the toggle switch by comparing two kinds of people who engage in the same behavior but with different switch settings. Health vegetarians avoid meat for practical reasons, like lowering cholesterol and avoiding toxins. Moral vegetarians avoid meat for ethical reasons: to avoid complicity in the suffering of animals. By investigating their feelings about meat-eating, Rozin showed that the moral motive sets off a cascade of opinions. Moral vegetarians are more likely to treat meat as a contaminant — they refuse, for example, to eat a bowl of soup into which a drop of beef broth has fallen. They are more likely to think that other people ought to be vegetarians, and are more likely to imbue their dietary habits with other virtues, like believing that meat avoidance makes people less aggressive and bestial.” Actions can take on different tones of morality over time: smoking has become moralized from largely being a person decision and many other behaviors have become amoralized over time like divorce, being a working mother, using pot, or being gay. And Pinker notes that the movement of smoking to being “immoral” is not just a question of the harm done to others since other things which cause harm to others, like not changing the batteries in smoke alarms or going on a driving vacation, both which increase the risk to others, are not moralized.

Examples developed by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, show that we typically develop a gut feel about whether something is moral or immoral and then struggle to defend our position. For example, deciding that it is immoral for a woman cleaning out her closet and finding her old, now unwanted, American flag, to cut it up into pieces and use the rags to clean her bathroom. In this case as in many others, it is difficult to argue who has been hurt.

And scholars think that many of our standards of immorality have developed for evolutionary biological reasons. We think it is okay to push a lever to divert a speeding conductorless trolley onto another track that kills one innocent person rather than the five it would kill on its current course, but not okay to throw a fat man off a bridge in front of a trolley to save these five men, even though both result in one innocent person being killed rather than five. Joshua Greene, a philosopher and cognitive neuroscientist, believes that we developed norms about not manhandling innocent people. They also tested this with neuroscience to observe with brain scanners a conflict between the brain’s emotional regions and the brain’s rational lobes. “When people pondered the dilemmas that required killing someone with their bare hands, several networks in their brains lighted up. One, which included the medial (inward-facing) parts of the frontal lobes, has been implicated in emotions about other people. A second, the dorsolateral (upper and outer-facing) surface of the frontal lobes, has been implicated in ongoing mental computation (including nonmoral reasoning, like deciding whether to get somewhere by plane or train). And a third region, the anterior cingulate cortex (an evolutionarily ancient strip lying at the base of the inner surface of each cerebral hemisphere), registers a conflict between an urge coming from one part of the brain and an advisory coming from another.

“But when the people were pondering a hands-off dilemma, like switching the trolley onto the spur with the single worker, the brain reacted differently: only the area involved in rational calculation stood out. Other studies have shown that neurological patients who have blunted emotions because of damage to the frontal lobes become utilitarians: they think it makes perfect sense to throw the fat man off the bridge. Together, the findings corroborate Greene’s theory that our nonutilitarian intuitions come from the victory of an emotional impulse over a cost-benefit analysis.”

This research led closer to a sense of universal morality, that emerges even early in childhood before empathy is taught. “Four-year-olds say that it is not O.K. to wear pajamas to school (a convention) and also not O.K. to hit a little girl for no reason (a moral principle). But when asked whether these actions would be O.K. if the teacher allowed them, most of the children said that wearing pajamas would now be fine but that hitting a little girl would still not be.”People almost universally across the globe have things that might seem akin to social capital: “a sense of fairness: that one should reciprocate favors, reward benefactors and punish cheaters. They value loyalty to a group, sharing and solidarity among its members and conformity to its norms.” They also believe in deference to legitimate power, respecting high status people, and avoiding “defilement, contamination and carnality.” They’ve lumped these into five elements of the “periodic table” of morality: harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity, the second and third of which are closely connected to social capital. Pinker notes that groups across the world can vary on morality depending on the relative weights they attach to these five elements of morality.

The subjects of fiarness and community/loyalty “match up with the classic examples of how altruism can evolve that were worked out by sociobiologists in the 1960s and 1970s and made famous by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. Fairness is very close to what scientists call reciprocal altruism, where a willingness to be nice to others can evolve as long as the favor helps the recipient more than it costs the giver and the recipient returns the favor when fortunes reverse. The analysis makes it sound as if reciprocal altruism comes out of a robotlike calculation, but in fact Robert Trivers, the biologist who devised the theory, argued that it is implemented in the brain as a suite of moral emotions. Sympathy prompts a person to offer the first favor, particularly to someone in need for whom it would go the furthest. Anger protects a person against cheaters who accept a favor without reciprocating, by impelling him to punish the ingrate or sever the relationship. Gratitude impels a beneficiary to reward those who helped him in the past. Guilt prompts a cheater in danger of being found out to repair the relationship by redressing the misdeed and advertising that he will behave better in the future (consistent with Mencken’s definition of conscience as ”the inner voice which warns us that someone might be looking”). Many experiments on who helps whom, who likes whom, who punishes whom and who feels guilty about what have confirmed these predictions.”Community, the very different emotion that prompts people to share and sacrifice without an expectation of payback, may be rooted in nepotistic altruism, the empathy and solidarity we feel toward our relatives (and which evolved because any gene that pushed an organism to aid a relative would have helped copies of itself sitting inside that relative). In humans, of course, communal feelings can be lavished on nonrelatives as well. Sometimes it pays people (in an evolutionary sense) to love their companions because their interests are yoked, like spouses with common children, in-laws with common relatives, friends with common tastes or allies with common enemies. And sometimes it doesn’t pay them at all, but their kinship-detectors have been tricked into treating their groupmates as if they were relatives by tactics like kinship metaphors (blood brothers, fraternities, the fatherland), origin myths, communal meals and other bonding rituals.

” Unfortunately, the meme of the selfish gene escaped from popular biology books and mutated into the idea that organisms (including people) are ruthlessly self-serving. And this doesn’t follow. Genes are not a reservoir of our dark unconscious wishes. ”Selfish” genes are perfectly compatible with selfless organisms, because a gene’s metaphorical goal of selfishly replicating itself can be implemented by wiring up the brain of the organism to do unselfish things, like being nice to relatives or doing good deeds for needy strangers. When a mother stays up all night comforting a sick child, the genes that endowed her with that tenderness were ‘selfish’ in a metaphorical sense, but by no stretch of the imagination is she being selfish.

“Nor does reciprocal altruism — the evolutionary rationale behind fairness — imply that people do good deeds in the cynical expectation of repayment down the line. We all know of unrequited good deeds, like tipping a waitress in a city you will never visit again and falling on a grenade to save platoonmates. These bursts of goodness are not as anomalous to a biologist as they might appear.”

Trivers, the biologist showed that even individuals who wish to promote reciprocity must develop some system (he proposed tit-for-tat) in being reciprocal without being preyed upon or perennially cheated. Trivers theorized that people would compete in a reciprocal society to be the most generous partner so that his reputation would spread and others would want to cooperate with him, since a reputation for fairness and generosity was important. And favor receivers would have to sort out the puffery (claims of having done huge favors) from the reality. But Trivers hypothesized an ecological niche also for stingy reciprocators who gain fewer trading partners, but have to give less on each transaction or cheaters who exploit gains from one-off transactions without the expectation of repeat play.

Whether this morality is God-given is unknown although Pinker notes that the rules of morality have to be symmetrical: we can’t advocate a system that constantlly privileges me over you. That is why the notion of “interchangability of perspectives” keeps on reappearing in “the Golden Rule (itself discovered many times); Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity; the Social Contract of Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke; Kant’s Categorical Imperative; and Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance. It also underlies Peter Singer’s theory of the Expanding Circle — the optimistic proposal that our moral sense, though shaped by evolution to overvalue self, kin and clan, can propel us on a path of moral progress, as our reasoning forces us to generalize it to larger and larger circles of sentient beings.”

The Pinker article is available here.

Daniel Goleman

Relatedly, Daniel Goleman wants to know what impels us to act morally. There is a nice talk by Daniel Goleman at TED (link below) on empathy and the good Samaritan with a good summary here.

Goleman hypothesizes, based on an incident with a homeless man in NYC and the fact that we are wired neurologically to empathize, that all empathy takes is us noticing others’ needs and “tuning in” rather than “tuning out.” Because of the outpouring of help that Goleman’s noticing of this Hispanic homeless man prompted, he is optimistic.

But Goleman doesn’t discuss why we don’t notice. Some of it surely is that we train ourselves not to notice, but it may also be a self-protection mechanism against feeling that there are too many needs out there and we can’t satisfy these needs, or a competition between our desire to meet the needs of family/friends versus the needs of strangers, or the fact that humans also don’t want to feel taken advantage of, and under-serve homeless for example, because the experience of getting tricked into helping someone who feigns homelessness or injury is greater than the joy that comes from helping another (even if 9 out of 10 beggars are legitimate).

Daniel Goleman TED talk available here.

How our brain says “I feel your pain”

Intresting Wall Street Journal piece Friday 8/17/07 on the neurological science of empathy. 

A mirror system in the “brain’s motor cortex, which orchestrates movement and muscle control, the cells fire when we perform an action and also when we watch someone else do the same thing. When someone smiles or wrinkles her nose in distaste, motor cells in your own brain associated with those expressions resonate in response like a tuning fork, triggering a hint of the feeling itself.”

It has relevance for social capital as well as autism (scientists are not sure whether autistic individuals lack this important mirror system or whether the mirror system cells receive faulty data).  Studies have also shown that our levels of empathy are higher to those who share our ethnic identity.

Article “How Your Brain Allows You to Walk In Another’s Shoes” (WSJ, Robert Lee Hotz, p. B1, 8/17/07) is avilable here.  And the book Mirroring People is due out next year by Dr. Marco Iacoboni at UCLA.