The main argument: The sciences that focus on human behavior, meaning the social sciences, have traditionally relied mainly on surveys and lab experiments in their investigations. While valuable to a degree, these sources of evidence do have their shortcomings. Most significantly, surveys offer but indirect evidence of human behavior (and can also be compromised by deception and self-deception); while lab experiments tend to be somewhat artificial, and fail to capture the complexities of real life.
Recently, however, new digital technology has opened up a whole new way to study human behavior. This proves to be the case since mobile devices and sensors of all kinds are now able to record a dizzying array of human activity—everything from where we go, to what we buy, to whom we interact with and for how long, to our body language, and even our moods etc. When placed in the hands of social scientists these new sources of information can prove very valuable (and are far preferable than either surveys or lab experiments); for they allow scientists to study us in our natural environments—out in the real world—and they also allow scientists to study what we actually do, rather than what we say (which are sometimes quite different).
The method of investigating human behavior in our natural environments using digital technology has come to be called reality mining, and it is revolutionizing the social sciences.
One of the pioneers and leaders in the field of reality mining is Alex Pentland, a researcher out of MIT. Pentland’s main field of interest is using reality mining to explore the properties and patterns of interactions between people—what he calls social physics. Specifically, Pentland uses reality mining to investigate the social physics in a wide range of groups and situations, from social and peer groups; to social media platforms; to institutional settings such as schools and businesses; to even whole cities. And in his new book Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread—The Lessons from a New Science Pentland takes time out to catch us up on his findings.
One of Pentlands’s main findings thus far has to do with the importance of social interaction in influencing our behavior. Indeed, Pentland has found that much of our behavior is dominated by the influence of our close relations and the peer groups we are embedded in—everything from our diet and body weight to our political opinions and all things in between.
The influence of our social world is so great, in fact, that Pentland argues it is much more appropriate to think of ourselves as group-oriented than self-directed. This is important because Western society as a whole tends to take the opposite view. The result is that many of our policies and institutions are ill-fitted to our true nature—which leads to less than desirable outcomes. Thankfully, Pentland does offer some advice with regards to how we can re-design our policies and institutions in a way that better accommodates our nature.
A second of Pentland’s main findings has to do with how ideas and behavior spread through human interactions and groups—and also, and even more important, what kinds of interactions produce the best results in terms of generating the most creative and productive ideas.
Specifically, Pentland has found that the most creative and productive groups tend to have something very important in common: the group members have numerous interactions with highly diverse people outside of the group, and the group members are also highly connected to one another.
In terms of explaining why this pattern works best Pentland argues that the interactions outside of the group are important in becoming familiar with many different types of ideas, while the interactions within the group function to winnow out what are the best ideas, and also help build common norms of behavior and trust that allow the group to work well and cooperatively together.
I was happy to get the opportunity to learn about a very new and promising science from one of its leading practitioners. Many of the ‘living lab’ experiments outlined in the book are very interesting and I certainly learned a lot. My only complaints are that the book does have a fair bit of repetition and jumps around some, so I question the writing and organization a bit. All in all, though, a very good and interesting read about a new field that we are sure to hear more from moving forward.
Ich habe mir dieses Buch gekauft, weil es auf wissenschaftlich-fundierter Basis erklärt, wie man produktiv sein kann. Der Autor sagt, dass man 50% der Effizienz eines Team mit IdeaFlow erklären kann.
IdeaFlow ist ein Konzept, dass aus Erkundung und Engagement besteht. Ein Team braucht neue Ideen von außen und muss anschließend zusammen halten um diese neuen Erkenntnisse umzusetzen und voneinander zu lernen.
Der Schreibstil ist unterhaltsam und es wird in verständlichem English beschrieben, wie die verschiedenen Studien aufgenommen wurden.
Das besondere bei den Studien ist die Nutzung von vielen Sensoren, wie Smartphones oder Aktivitätstrackern und die Beobachtung einer Gruppe über einen größeren Zeitraum. Dabei werden Millionen von Datenpunkten gesammelt. Dieses Konzept wir als Living Lab bezeichnet.
Der Autor wird nicht müde darauf hinzuweisen, dass er neben seinen Studenten, die alle namentlich genannt werden, immer auch selbst an den verschiedenen Experimenten, Doktorarbeiten und Unternehmen beteiligt ist.
Insgesamt ein wichtiges Buch für die populäre Wissenschaft, welches hilfreich ist um menschliche Strukturen zu verstehen und optimal aufzusetzen.
I happened to read the interview that Alex Pentland gave to DER SPIEGEL some months ago. After that I was very curious to learn more about social physics. Thus, I have ordered a copy of the book and started reading. This book is written for the public and I found it to be a real turnpager. The author describes his fascinating ideas in a very comprehensible way.
Nearly all of us are working in teams together with very different people and many of us have asked ourselves why some projects succeed and some become a complete desaster. In my opinion, often the so-called "chemistry" between the co-workers is a crucial aspect for success (unless the project is useless from the very first moment). So far, this might just have been a suspicion and no one was able to really measure the quantity and quality of cooperation (of course you can look at the result, but by then it might be too late) .
Alex Pentland has developed the software tools to measure and analyse the chemistry or better say the physics between people that work together or even live together in larger groups, villages or cities. Alex Pentland's working horse is the smartphone. He uses it as an intelligent sensor to monitor whom people meet, how they talk, how active they are and so on. In his book there are instructive examples that show how his analyses help to improve work-flow and outcome. Thus, social science becomes to a large extent computer science on big data. I know that many people (especially in Germany) see much potential for misuse of the sensitive data that have to be collected for such a social physics survey. Certainly, this is a serious concern, but Alex Pentland proposes a software solution for this problem (it would lead too far to explain his idea here, you better read it in the book).
As a physicist I might be called naive in topics related to social science. But, in my opinion, this social physics ansatz is a great chance for the social sciences to achieve better results in terms of accuracy and reliability.
As a consequence of my enthusiasm I ordered more copies of the book and gave it to some of my colleagues. I am pretty optimistic that this will lead to a different view on our collaborating. Let's see what will happen ...