Taking One for the Team


MIT professor Alex Pentland, widely considered one of the world's top data scientists, says the ability for people in a social group to reward one another is of greater value than receiving individual rewards.

Pentland bases these conclusions on big data analytics, looking at social network interactions, cellphone usage behaviors, and other large-scale human activity datasets. He presents them in a new book, Social Physics.

MIT data scientist Alex Pentland
MIT data scientist Alex Pentland

"You do things for people, they do things for you, and that stuff is actually more powerful than economic incentives," Pentland said in an interview with InformationWeek. His work traces what he calls "idea flow" -- the way social groups spread ideas and transform them into behaviors.

On a micro level, this kind of information is useful for employers who are trying to get maximum productivity from their workers. Rewarding peers who encourage one another to adopt a new work tool is more effective than instructing them to adopt it, for example. Similar models work well for retailers (think viral marketing), and we've talked about the value in finding influential customers and letting them evangelize for a particular product or brand.

On a macro level, things get even more interesting. Pentland imagines a world where whole cities, transit systems, and societies are designed more effectively based on individual insights, not collective averages. He summed it up in a 2012 interview with Edge:

If you could see everybody in the world all the time, where they were, what they were doing, who they spent time with, then you could create an entirely different world. You could engineer transportation, energy, and health systems that would be dramatically better. It's this history of thinking about signals and people together, and how people work via these computer systems, and what data about human behavior can do, that led me to the realization that we're at a phase transition. We are moving from the reasoning of the enlightenment about classes and about markets to fine grain understanding of individual interactions and systems built on fine grain data sharing.

In an op-ed in Time this week, Pentland talks about how social physics can improve health insurance sign-up rates among the 18-to-34 age group, a demographic critical for the Affordable Care Act's viability. He says a financial incentive that rewards everyone in a neighborhood or group -- but only if everyone participates -- may drive young people to "sign up in droves."

In one community experiment, my MIT research group offered people financial rewards for healthier behavior. The result was a small improvement, but one that disappeared as soon as the experiment ended. However, in a second community, we gave people rewards only when their neighbors or members of their workgroup improved. The improvement was up to eight times greater, and perhaps just as important, the pattern of healthier behavior continued even after the experiment’s money ran out… Social network incentives raise community awareness and create social pressure to work together.

What do you think, members? We're conditioned to believe in rugged individualism, but the behavior patterns encoded in our big data seem to indicate otherwise. Is this kind of social science going to usher in a new era of human civilization, or does it smack of collectivism and military systems? Let's discuss!

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— Michael Steinhart, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn pageFriend me on Facebook, Executive Editor, AllAnalytics.com

Michael Steinhart, Contributing Editor

Michael Steinhart has been covering IT and business computing for 15 years, tracking the rising popularity of virtualization, unified fabric, high-performance computing, and cloud infrastructures. He is editor of The Enterprise Cloud Site, which won the Least Imaginative Site Name award in 2012, and he managed TheITPro.com, a community of IT professionals taking their first steps into cloud computing. From 2006 to 2012, Steinhart worked as an executive editor at Ziff Davis Enterprise, writing and managing research reports, whitepapers, case studies, magazine features, e-newsletters, blog posts, online videos, and podcasts. He also moderated and presented in dozens of webinars and virtual tradeshows. He got his start in IT journalism at CMP Media back in 1998, then moved to PC Magazine, managing the popular Solutions section and then covering business technology and consumer software. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications/journalism from Ramapo College of New Jersey.

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Re: Scratching my head
  • 2/7/2014 1:50:12 PM
NO RATINGS

I promise I won't tell anybody how gullible you are. 

Re: What of the manipulators?
  • 2/7/2014 1:46:54 PM
NO RATINGS

I'll start with one suggestion. Killer Analytics:Top 20 Metrics Missing From Your Balance Sheet, by Mark Graham Brown, a longtime management consultant. Mark will be our guest on A2 Radio on Friday, March 7, at 2 ET. Readers can find out more info about the episode here.

Re: Scratching my head
  • 2/7/2014 1:41:18 PM
NO RATINGS

That's a huge amount of money, Beth! In my mind, these AHCA plans are actually affordable, because they're designed to help the uninsured become insured. Silly, naive Michael.

 

Re: What of the manipulators?
  • 2/7/2014 1:38:36 PM
NO RATINGS

If we can see it in action, I'd say we (the ephmeral 'we') should make sure it's being used only for good. I'm sure he goes into greater detail in the book. We should put together a book list for our readers, maybe do some giveaways.

Re: Scratching my head
  • 2/7/2014 12:31:17 PM
NO RATINGS

Michael, If I tried your experiment with my twins, and Twin B complied, a war surely would have ensued once I handed over the treat to Twin A. You're brave.

Re: the day camp experiment -- now that was a great idea, especially since sending kids to summer day camp can be quite expensive and early bird offers often don't apply (at least not for park districts, say, that have to all open registration at the same day/hour.

Re: Obamacare, I think it can be, given the expense. I just talked to a friend who's paying more than $900/month for her health insurance. That requires serious re-budgeting and has trickle down affects on other spending. 

 

Re: What of the manipulators?
  • 2/7/2014 12:22:05 PM
NO RATINGS

I would have to agree that Pentland is too flippant in his dismissal. If a master of social physics knows how to influence group behavior to its ends, then what stock should we place in social physics at all? 

Re: Scratching my head
  • 2/6/2014 10:49:46 PM
NO RATINGS

I agree, kq4ym, but what do you think about rewarding group members with the ability to reward one another?

Re: What of the manipulators?
  • 2/6/2014 10:48:57 PM
NO RATINGS

Pentland does talk about manipulation at length -- essentially saying that mastery of social physics patterns enables one to influence group behavior. He dismisses it (to my mind) fairly glibly, though, saying that bad people, or bad governments, will use these principles for their own benefit, but they can be used to foster great good, as well.

Re: Scratching my head
  • 2/6/2014 10:46:04 PM
NO RATINGS

I was curious about this, too. On the one hand, it sounds like ground-breaking research. On the other, it's fairly old news. 

On a whim, I tried it with my twins tonight, though, and it worked. I told Twin B, "If you get into bed, I'll give your brother a treat." And he did it right away. Maybe there's some altruistic motivating factor, or the idea that he "did something" for his brother and now his brother "owes" him something, perhaps?

Also, a local day camp set up an early bird deal where five campers will get discounts if they sign up a sixth who's brand new. This had the whole neighborhood scrambling to put together groups of six. I guess that's a personal and collective reward, though.

Also, do you think signing up for Obamacare is such a huge life decision?

Re: Scratching my head
  • 2/6/2014 4:22:42 PM
NO RATINGS

I'm not so sure this is anything new. That members of social groupings are highly influenced by others in the group has long been studied and known. Just look at political parties, church membership, and just about any other group. Members more or less act in concert with other members, no matter what the outside influences or even logic might say.

What might be new is the idea of financially rewarding all the members when they reach a certain "join" level for a task. Kind of like crowd sourcing, that the project won't fly until a certain amount is reached. An all or nothing decision.

I wonder if that might backfire eventually however, if group members find not enough rewards being put forth for the tasks they are expected to complete.

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