Loud Subtext

We literally don’t know what we communicate in important conversations:

What you say in a conversation — whether it’s on a first date, a job interview or pitching an idea — may be less important than how you say it.  But the cues that may decide the outcome can be so subtle that neither person in the conversation is consciously aware of them. Whether or not you get the job, or the other person’s phone number, is very strongly influenced by unconscious factors such as the way one person’s speech patterns match the other’s, the level of physical activity as people talk, and the degree to which one person sets the tone — literally — of the conversation. .. The features he found that are highly predictive of outcomes, he says, "match the literature in biology about signaling in animals." … "Half of our decision-making seems to be predicted by this unconscious channel," … The strong correlations between unconscious forms of communication and the decisions that result strongly undermines people’s perception that they are making choices based on rational, conscious factors. 

HT to Michael Bishop.

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  • Actually, the researcher says this:

    “Pentland says that this technology is recording and quantifying something that most people already understand intuitively. “All of this is sort of folk knowledge,” he says, “we all know it’s there, but we all ignore it.”

    Pretty sure that most persuasion technicians don’t ignore it at all. Nor am I confident that making these techniques more explicit is going to leave them untouched in their ability to convince.

  • Stuart Buck

    Have you ever had the experience of meeting someone and instantly disliking him or her for no rational reason that you can put into words?

  • josh

    I find that I can always put it into words that I make up after the fact.

  • babar

    Hence the popularity of textual channels of communication, on which it is easier to communicate what you mean to say.

  • frelkins


    instantly disliking him or her for no rational reason

    Yes. I’ve always put it down to propinquity + chemistry – literally – vaso reception, vasopressin, and oxytocin, altho’ I realize this is controversial theory without strong proof in humans yet. I’d like to hear other theories on this as well.

    A more common theory of first impressions involves balancing factors such as propinquity (proximity in place, social status, kinship, etc), similarity, reciprocal liking, and physical attractiveness.

  • billswift

    Video and audio are a distraction when considering intellectual matters. Your biases will have a field day with all the intellectually extraneous information you receive. There was research done in the 1980s or 1990s, I haven’t been able to find a reference, that given a written transcript, “juries” performed more accurately than with an audio recording, which in turn was more accurate than an audiovisual.

    I meant video and audio of people talking, not video showing how to do something.

  • Gordon Rae

    The Shannon and Weaver model of communication isn’t an accurate account of how human beings communicate with one another.

  • Stefan King

    I discovered this first hand in a sales job on the street. When you perform the same pitch on random people about 40 times an hour, you get a procedural (intuitive) understanding of the factors involved in a sale.

    I was surprised at importance of tone and bodylanguage, as opposed to information.

  • frelkins


    “body language”

    I agree. I basically give pep talks for a living – wasn’t it Guy Kawasaki who said “if you’re not presenting, you’re not selling, and if you’re not selling, you’re dying?” – let me tell you, your own body language is key, and learning that of others. Cold reading. Always practice your cold reading – but never use your powers for evil!

  • Doug S.

    The strong correlations between unconscious forms of communication and the decisions that result strongly undermines people’s perception that they are making choices based on rational, conscious factors.

    I rarely make decisions based on rational, conscious factors. I’m
    much more likely to make a decision based on irrational conscious factors, rational subconscious factors, or irrational subconscious factors.

    I basically run on the affect heuristic; I usually do what feels good to do.

  • Heath S

    Is this a major source of projective fallacy?

    Person unconsciously learns your beliefs and tries not to be disagreeable. Then you falsely assume that they hold those beliefs?

  • Cameron Taylor

    Doug S: I likewise find I run on the affect heuristic. In fact, I consciously make my decisions based on the affect heuristic. I’ve actually concluded based on experience that my ‘affect’ is a lot better at making decisions than ‘I’ am in most cases. When I have overriden that instinct I have found that I discover some time later why exactly my ‘affect’ was nudging me in that direction in the first place.

  • Stefan King


    Thank for the Kawasaki quote. Serves as a strong reminder.

  • Doug S.

    Well… running on the affect heuristic does have its drawbacks; my affect heuristic is very present-oriented and has extremely steep temporal discounting. For example, one thing my affect heuristic tells me is that I should avoid employment and other types of paying work at all costs, because surfing the Internet and playing video games all day is much more fun. (I am 26 years old and live with my parents, who support me financially.) Delay gratification? Why would I want to do something crazy like that?