#53. A Summary of ‘Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread—The Lessons from a New Science’ by Alex Pentland


‘Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread–The Lessons from a New Science’ by Alex Pentland (Penguin Press HC; January 30, 2014)

Table of Contents:

i. Introduction/Synopsis


1. The Traditional Methods of the Social Sciences: Surveys and Lab Experiments

2. The New Method of Investigating Human Behavior: Digital Sensors

  • 2a. Digital Sensors in Mobile Phones: Funf Software
  • 2b. Wearable Digital Sensors: The Sociometric Badge
  • 2c. Using Digital Sensors to Infer Behavior Indirectly (in Both Individuals and Across Societies)

3. Reality Mining and Social Physics


4. Human Beings as Self-Directed Vs. Human Beings as Group-Oriented

5. Peer Groups

6. The Influence of Peer Groups

  • 6a. The Diet and Weight Experiment
  • 6b. The Political Views Experiment

7. How and Why Peer Groups Influence Us

  • 7a. How Peer Groups Influence Us: Slowly but Surely (and Often Unconsciously)
  • 7b. Why Peer Groups Influence Us: The Benefits of Social Learning

8. The Influence of Friends

9. Social Incentives Vs. Individual Incentives

  • 9a. How Social Incentives Outperform Individual Incentives
  • 9b. The Red Balloon Challenge


10. Creativity and Productivity in Individuals

  • 10b. Exploring for New Ideas
  • 10b. Engaging with Close Co-Workers

11. Creativity and Productivity in Groups

  • 11a. Example 1: The R&D Lab Study
  • 11b. Example 2: The Bank of America Study
  • 11c. Example 3. The German Bank Study
  • 11d. Why the Exploration/Engagement Strategy Works

12. Group Dynamics

13. Creativity, Productivity and Crime Rates in Cities

  • 13a. How Exploration Increases Creativity and Productivity in Cities
  • 13b. How Engagement Lowers Crime Rates
  • 13c. Striking the Right Balance between Exploration and Engagement

14. Other Uses of Reality Mining in Promoting Civic Well-Being


15. Privacy and Data Ownership, and the New Deal on Data

16. Making the New Deal on Data a Reality

  • 16a. The Barrier of Data Companies (Is Beginning to Fall)
  • 16b. The Technical Barrier, and the OpenPDS Solution
  • 16c. The Living Lab Experiment in Trento, Italy (Using the OpenPDS System)

17. Conclusion

i. Introduction/Synopsis

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.

Taken together, the findings of social physics have deep repercussions for how we manage our lives; the groups and organizations of which we are a part; and even our governments.

Here is Alex Pentland introducing the concept of social physics:

What follows is a full executive summary of Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread—The Lessons from a New Science by Alex Pentland.


1. The Traditional Methods of the Social Sciences: Surveys and Lab Experiments

As mentioned in the introduction, the social sciences have traditionally relied mainly on surveys and lab experiments in their investigations of human behavior. These sources of evidence do have their bright spots; however, they also have serious limitations.

Take surveys, for example. Surveys are valuable because they give scientists access to the inner, mental world of their subjects. Ideally, at least. The problem with surveys is that people are not always willing to tell the truth on them—and there is also the problem of self-deception, and the difficulty of knowing our own minds. Indeed, there is good evidence that most of us deceive ourselves at least some of the time, and that our explanations for why we do what we do are not always accurate. Thus surveys suffer from errors of subjectivity. Also, surveys tend to rely on stock answers, and so have difficulty capturing the subtle differences between people. The result is that surveys tend to produce results that play to stereotypes (loc. 327).

When it comes to lab experiments, these are valuable in that they are able to capture human behavior directly (unlike surveys). However, the problem with lab experiments is that they are, well, in the lab. And you simply cannot capture the complexities of the real world in a lab. Pentland sums it up thus: “most current social science is based on either analysis of laboratory phenomena or on surveys—that is, on descriptions of averages or stereotypes. These approaches don’t account for the complexity of real life, when all of our mental quirks operate at the same time. They also miss the critical fact that the details about the people we interact with, and how we interact with them, matter as much as market forces or class structures. Social phenomena are really made up of billions of small transactions between individuals—people trading not only goods and money but also information, ideas, or just gossip. There are patterns in those individual transactions that drive phenomena such as financial crashes and Arab springs. We need to understand these micropatterns because they don’t just average out to the classical way of understanding society” (loc. 334).

2. The New Method of Investigating Human Behavior: Digital Sensors

Fortunately, recent advances in digital technology are now allowing social scientists to overcome the shortfalls of surveys and lab experiments, and capture human behavior at a much finer level of detail. Indeed, digital sensors are now able to capture an astonishing array of human behavior—including everything from location and speed; to body language and posture; to communications and face-to-face interactions; to purchases and beyond.

*For prospective buyers: To get a good indication of how this (and other) articles look before purchasing, I’ve made several of my past articles available for free. Each of my articles follows the same form and is similar in length (15-20 pages). The free articles are available here: Free Articles

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New Podcast: A Discussion of ‘Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming’ by Mckenzie Funk


‘Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming’ by McKenzie Funk (Penguin Press; January 23, 2014)


On this episode Cristina and I discuss the new book by Mckenzie Funk called Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming.

Topic of discussion: The 3 ways people are making a profit off climate change, with a focus on 2 technologies that are designed to help us adapt to rising sea levels and stronger storms: storm-surge sea walls, and floating infrastructure.