How to Tap into the 'Water Cooler Effect'

Last Updated Oct 6, 2008 5:20 PM EDT

Sportscasters sometimes marvel that a hot player is "unconscious." The same may be true of businesspeople, as well. Sandy Pentland, a groundbreaking researcher at MIT's Media Lab, argues that we all communicate at an unconscious level, using body language, eye contact, speech patterns and other ways to signal our true intentions to other people. His research has found, for instance, that departments in large companies that have a strong 'water cooler' culture are 30 percent more productive than those that don't, and he argues that this 'water cooler effect' stems from unconscious communications, a primal way of communicating that predates the evolution of language.

His new book "Honest Signals" aims to show how our unconscious communications networks "provide a quite effective window into our intentions, goals and values. By examining this ancient channel of communications, for instance -- paying no attention to words or even who the people are -- we can accurately predict outcomes of dating situations, job interview, and even salary negotiations." (emphasis his).

I was in Pentland's lab last week and got a copy of "Honest Signals." He promised me that the book is designed for lay readers like me, and should take only an hour or two to go through. I've followed his work for years and have always found it cutting edge. I'll be going through the book and the papers and will post on them later this week.

  • Michael Fitzgerald

    Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.