Watching me, watching you: making sense of social interaction

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More and more studies are suggesting that smartphones and other handheld devices can damage our concentration, undermine social interaction and make us considerably less efficient in our day-to-day working lives.

But for psychologists and social scientists researching the ways that human beings behave and interact, these technologies have brought with them some unforeseen benefits.

Until now, one fundamental problem with much psychological research was that it was difficult, if not impossible, to study how people interact with each other in real-world settings over a long period of time. So instead, researchers would test their hypotheses by setting up experiments in a laboratory or similarly controlled artificial environment, using participants who were fully aware that they were subjects of an experiment.

But as I explain - along with my co-authors - in the paper "Social Sensing for Psychology: Automated Interpersonal Behavior Assessment", technology has changed all that.

Thanks to advances in digital imaging, recording and sensing, information about our verbal and non-verbal social interactions can now be captured in the field and analyzed continuously in real-time. And this ‘social sensing’ revolution is transforming our understanding of how people behave.

The secret to social sensing is that it takes place without human input.

Whether it is in a fixed workplace environment or on the move, cameras, sensors, smartphone with GPS capabilities and even wearable devices such as smartwatches can tirelessly and unobtrusively capture and record verbal and non-verbal behavior. This is then analyzed using automated algorithms and techniques such as machine learning to extract relevant data to obtain data on behavioral cues ranging from body language - eye gaze, body posture and hand gestures, etc – to details of the content and tone of conversations.

This means that for the first time, researchers can track the day-to-day social interactions of large numbers of people in an organization over lengthy periods of time. That means they can address areas that were impossible to study previously, such as links between employee interaction and specific outcomes like productivity or job satisfaction. What’s more, these large-scale studies can also reveal factors that cause these to change over time. 

But it isn’t just long-term research that can benefit from the data gathered through social sensing. It can also be used in a variety of training and development contexts and to improve to task performance in real-time. With automated feedback through a smartphone app, for example, it is possible to assess how effective someone’s presentation is or whether they are perceived as trustworthy during a negotiation.

This opens up a whole range of possibilities to modify the behavior of individuals or groups while they interact.

Of course, all this is not without ethical implications. At a technical level, automated interpretation is only as good as the human-coded algorithms that lie behind it, meaning that great care must be taken to avoid bias or inaccurate assumptions finding their way into a system.

But more than that, perhaps the biggest challenge lie around questions of privacy and ensuring that such techniques are used responsibly rather than as means of surveillance and exercising control over staff. Researchers will also need to be acutely sensitive to issues such as consent and data sharing.

Nevertheless, several social sensing studies are already taking place, some with surprising results. One study of the interaction of 22 employees using wearable devices revealed that the more employees communicated, the less satisfied they were with their jobs!

Another study we carried out sought to examine whether non-verbal behaviors observed during job interviews could predict whether an applicant would be successful in a sales environment. And other research has looked at vocal behavior cues and their impact of customer satisfaction levels in a call centre environment.

What is clear from our paper is that this is only the beginning. Just as it has revolutionized the way we communicate, so technology will revolutionize the way that we study human interaction. Thus it will have profound implications for training and development and the ways that organizations and individuals seek to improve their performance.

About Marianne Schmid Mast

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