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Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread— The Lessons from a New Science

3.54  ·  Rating details ·  1,142 ratings  ·  151 reviews
From one of the world’s leading data scientists, a landmark tour ofthe new science of idea flow, offering revolutionary insights into the mysteries of collective intelligence and social influence

If the Big Data revolution has a presiding genius, it is MIT’s Alex "Sandy" Pentland. Over years of groundbreaking experiments, he has distilled remarkable discoveries significant
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published January 30th 2014 by Penguin Press (first published January 1st 2014)
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Santiago Ortiz
This very well written book contains great ideas that not only are interesting in theory, but very promising if applied to society, as the experiments the author and his team seem to demonstrate. However, this book has a huge problem: it reduces a big picture to the authors particular research, not giving credit nor connecting with multiple different approaches to the same problems. A naïve reader will get the impression that the author and his team are the pioneers or, at minimal, the leading r ...more
Paul Wadehra
Feb 16, 2014 rated it did not like it
Shelves: audible
Could be an interesting topic but the writing was dry and the author talked about himself all the time.
Edward Vielmetti
Mar 09, 2014 rated it it was ok
Pentland and his research group have appeared to have discovered a simple model of human behavior with great predictive power. By snooping on people's cell phones, they can reduce typical human interactions into a set of interacting finite state machines, and by noticing just how regular those behavioral patterns are they think they understand ideas. Quite evidently the populations they study live routine, predictable lives. (Perhaps we all do.)

My biggest criticism (& thus the non-recommendation
Hakan Jackson
Feb 16, 2014 rated it it was ok
This book reads like a resume from the author. Through out the book the author claims he and his team made an assortment of discoveries when in all actuality his team merely confirmed experiments conducted by other scientists. Also, the fact that the author makes no mention of memetics shows his naivety in the field, if his repeated extrapolations weren't enough. If this subject interests you try reading "The Half-Life of Facts by Samuel Arbesman" instead. ...more
Nelson Zagalo
I am ashamed of this book and the academy. The next time any academic thinks bad about Malcolm Gladwell, please think twice, read this and find out why most academics shouldn't publish books for the public.

Alex Pentland is a high praised academic from MIT in the domain of Big Data, but this book is not about research, neither about promoting research. This book is more about his achievements memoirs. Do we really want to know about where his publications were accepted, and were he works, or shou
Aaron Thibeault
Feb 25, 2014 rated it really liked it
*A full executive summary of this book is available here:

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); whi
This is not some pop-science book by a run-of-the-mill academic: Alex Pentland is one of the most powerful scientists in the world. His projects outlined here are not just experiments: they are prototypes exploring what a surveillance-based society might look like. Which is why Pentland's avoidance of any discussion of *power* in the book - who has it, who wields it and for what end - feels less ignorance than dissemblance.
There is a lot here to agree with - Pentland's explication of how systemi
Apr 17, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: social-sciences
I went through this book in one sitting. Reminds me of Rational Choice Theory but with a layer of real-time data update and Data-driven-decision-making.

I plan to go back and read "Honest Signals" also by the same author. I had meant to. I'm more motivated now.
Alfons Wiedemeijer
Jan 21, 2021 rated it liked it
Shelves: open-innovation
I feel a bit weird after finishing this book... the topic of Social Network Analysis is something that interests me very much, but this book didn't provide me a lot of new in depth knowledge. Instead, I got to learn about all the papers that Alex Pentland has published (and where), all the companies he has co-founded, all the times he was involved in international trans-institutional policy making etcetera etcetera. So it did a splendid job at promoting Alex Pentland himself.

His point was clear
Jan 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
A high 3, around 4 stars!

I did it! I finally finished this book and just in time for school to start tomorrow! A little bit of stress was felt while reading the last 60 pages of this book, since I was trying to get it finished by the start of school, but I actually did enjoy this book overall. I did also feel a little bit rushed and lacked focus, all is good now.

I almost didn't start this book for many reasons, but I am glad that I did. Alex Pentland is smart and insightful about things and I ha
Feb 06, 2019 rated it it was ok
A friend of mine gave me this book to read and it took me three attempts to finally finish reading it. For my taste, the author pushed himself, his team and his research just a little bit too much to the fore. Also, the uncritical pursuit of making teams, companies, societies etc. "better" (whatever that means) did not quite resonate with me. Methods for gathering the data needed for analysis seem - to me - to be highly intrusive into privacy. A quote that is quite symbolic for the book: "... to ...more
Jonathan Jeckell
The writing style contained a hint of sales pitch at times, but the concepts are interesting, and are founded on a number of peer reviewed journal articles. The appendices contain a lot of the mathematics, methodology, and development information, and the text and citations refer to the journal articles to delve into this in more depth, while keeping the text explanation accessible to a general audience, if still a bit jargony. All of this is predicated on "big-data" analysis and computational s ...more
Mike Peleah
Feb 10, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Sharp, fast, and smart book about new approach to analysis of and action in networked societies and data-rich environment. The book offers overview of a broad range of researches conducted at or led by Alex Pentland from MIT, all connected by central idea of "Social Physics". Pentland argues that central for our networked society is flow of ideas, and by regulating it we could get better results. Our Data Rich environment offers many opportunities for measuring and designing these flows. The boo ...more
Jul 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
Overall I loved the book, and if Good Reads allowed for it, I'd have given it a 3.5. Maybe that sounds contradictory, let me explain.

The first half of the book is solid. How good ideas spread based social group dynamics, lateral conversations within strict, vertical hierarchies, how engagement is achieved between employees to increase productivity. If this all sounds a little dry, Pentland manages to make it lively with examples from real life applications he and his research team conducted.

Jul 18, 2014 rated it liked it
"The most productive people are constantly developing and testing a new story, adding newly discovered ideas to the story and then trying it out on everyone they meet. Like sculpting raw clay into a beautiful statue, over time their story becomes more and more compelling. Finally they decide that it is time to act on it, to bring it into the light and test it against reality. To these people, the practice of harvesting, winnowing, and sculpting ideas feels like play. In fact, some of them call i ...more
Rishav Agarwal
Feb 17, 2017 rated it liked it
A good place to start for anyone who would like to know more about Sandy's amazing work in understanding social connections. The writing is a bit dry so do treat it as a longish review paper and not a pop science novel. ...more
Dec 21, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Very interesting book. Advances the seemingly obvious claim that the increased flow of ideas between and among human agents (whether, e.g., in certain businesses, closed markets, cities, or societies) conduces to the more efficient functioning of the systems they're embedded in. Makes the further claim that idea flow increases as a function of a small number of variables, such as the relative level of engagement of agents with each other, and their relative level of exposure to the innovative id ...more
Sean Kottke
Feb 14, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: professional, 2014
The key take-aways about the ideal conditions for effective idea flow dovetail nicely with other notable recent works on group dynamics and innovation (such as The Rainforest). Organizations that allow their members to be prolific explorers of diverse ideas and provide them with rich opportunities to exchange and expose each other to those ideas will thrive. Not a surprising finding there, but the research-based insights into how face-to-face and virtual peer networks may be incentivized to acco ...more
Bett Correa-Bollhoefer
Apr 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Social Physics is an excellent book on how to create an innovative culture in your organization. The big take-a-ways:
Creative people do the following steps
1. Absorb ideas from diverse sources
2. "Test these ideas" on lots of smart people and seeing which ideas pass their BS test.
3. Taking these new ideas that come out of the tests and testing them on more diverse people

Ideas can only "flow" by people communicating them with others.
Face to face meetings are the strongest way to create a connectio
Jun 14, 2014 rated it really liked it
This book is different from most social theory books as instead of simply promoting ways of communication and how make society work better cooperatively, it uses big data to prove if methods work or not. I wouldn't say it's ground breaking, but offers a unique perspective that hasn't been offered before.

My complaint with the book is that near the end, it felt like a doctorate thesis about looser privacy regulations so he can get better access to individuals data for his own personal research. Th
Apr 29, 2014 rated it it was amazing
One of the best books on social physics. It follows, using big data, the ways in witch not only good ideas are created but also how societies develop. Its main objective is to ask what are the roles and evolution of diversity, engagement, social trust, social intelligence and innovation, following both business management and urban development. A must read for those who want to be up to speed on the subject.
Dec 02, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Bruce by: ITSC, CIOC & CAOC
Shelves: social-science
Alex Pentland is a numbers guy, and this book represents his initial attempts to parlaying to a lay readership his myriad published studies, summaries, and academic analyses of big data-derived computer models. The book is subdivided into three sections, but near as I can tell, there are really only two big ideas here: (1) that aggregated data can be reduced or distilled in such a way to permit "tuning" of human behavior without observer effects (akin to Asimov's Second Foundation and every eco ...more
Dec 28, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The case studies, by using big data, introduced in this book indicate that (a) people primarily rely on their peers for social learning and interactions (flow of ideas) hence shape highly patterned behavior based on “common sense”, (b) repeated cooperative interactions among members of the community (engagement) brings movement toward cooperative behavior, (c) to enhance face-to-face engagement is a key factor to improve productivity and (subjectively judged) creativity, and (d) social physics i ...more
Alexander Smith
Oct 29, 2017 rated it liked it
This is a very good read that I would consider a part of a growing collection of very similar "21st century interdisciplinary social science" themed, accessible reads. This is a read somewhat echoing works like Linked by Barabasi, Going Viral by Nahon and Hemsley, Triumph of the City by Glaeser, The Stack by Bratton, and others. Social Physics echoes a new brand of a 'new science' steeped in an era of big data science, modern statistics, and network methodologies with a focus on tying older para ...more
Viachaslau Bernat
Jul 30, 2019 rated it liked it
I found the book quite randomly on the library shelf. The title and foreword intrigued me and I gave it a try.
It's a bit weird to read about 'cool new data science' 5 years after the book was published but it gave me a perspective. Just googling the fate of mentioned startups showed what ideas were good, and what was not as good (or maybe just too early).
That part of the book that explained human collective behavior was quite informative and had some easily testable practical advice. It also gav
Dec 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
The brilliant Alex "Sandy" Pentland has studied big data and its uses and come up with some fascinating ways to nibble around the edges of the Internet and use it to nudge human behavior. At its heart, Social Physics has two big interrelated ideas: "idea flow," which is how ideas actually spread in society, whether 'primitive' early groups or our vastly more sophisticated giant groupings of mobile phones and societies; and "peer influence," which is how you get people to adapt an idea or a fad o ...more
Oct 24, 2017 rated it liked it
Not quite as intriguing as I wanted it to be, so I didn't finish it by the time it was due back at the library and I'm not going to buy it...

"What I (author: Alex Pentland) have learned from these experiences is that many of the traditional ideas we have about ourselves and how society works are wrong. It is not simply the brightest who have the best ideas; it is those who are best at harvesting ideas from others. It is not only the determined who drive change; it is those who must fully engage
Yusuph Mkangara
Feb 10, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Book had some solid food for thought around social networks and the real money is probably around scrutinizing their mathematical models. There were some core examples that kept being repeated such that the last “social physics for society” section lacked any real memorable examples outside of Ivory Coast’s D4D. I was most disappointed by the lack of serious critical reflection of very real social constructs such as race and power. They are often dismissed (class is about the only one given some ...more
May 26, 2019 rated it it was ok
Social physics is a metaphor Sandy Pentland adopts to embrace a class of data science research. It is largely, but not exclusively, about the flow of ideas between individuals taken from large datasets of telephone and actual mobility, talk, and other residue of human behaviour.

I came to this book after reading Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capital. In this book Zuboff made Pentland one of her chief boogeymen of a reductive behavioural science, heir to B.F. Skinner’s lab rats.

One of Pentland’s
Peter White
The topic of social physics covers how networks of people relate to the flow of ideas. That's a fascinating topic.

Unfortunately the book is extremely poorly written. It is very repetitive, with each chapter explaining a similar case of how the author was involved with some study and it's all because of his work that we understand some behaviour or other; is vague and doesn't bother to define terms properly; and has some truly bizarre attempts to take obvious facts and turn them into profound sta
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“It is not simply the brightest who have the best ideas; it is those who are best at harvesting ideas from others. It is not only the most determined who drive change; it is those who most fully engage with like-minded people. And it is not wealth or prestige that best motivates people; it is respect and help from peers.” 2 likes
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