Weak Signals: How to predict what people will do next

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Have you ever been in a situation where something happened, say, a relationship ended, and you thought, “I should have seen it coming”? Would you have wanted to see it earlier so you could do something about it? You can. You can see things coming by paying attention to the clues in people’s behaviour that tell you what they will do next.

Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash

Signals in behaviour

I call these clues “weak signals”. They are the things that people say or do that may seem insignificant the first time that you experience them. But they’re not insignificant. They keep coming back, and they get stronger each time, until you reach a situation that requires a reaction.

I once worked with someone who missed an important project review meeting due to illness. Then he missed another due to an urgent medical procedure. Over time, he missed several more meetings. No one thought anything of it besides concern for his health.

But it turned out that he hadn’t been ill at all. He’d created excuses to avoid meetings that would show that he lacked the credentials that he claimed to have. Pretending to be ill was the weak signal for pretending to be qualified. Once he was found out, he was dismissed.

Why do weak signals exist? A person’s behaviour reflects their attitudes, personality, or capabilities – which change slowly, if at all. When we’re with other people we look at their behaviour to determine if they’re friendly, reliable, caring, and so on. We observe their body language, listen to what they say, or watch how they treat other people. We put together an image of who we think a person is, and we refine our image over time as we spend more time with them.

Observing the signals

Everyone can learn to observe and reflect on weak signals. All it requires is paying attention to what you observe, and considering the possibility that some behaviour might come back. The behavioural clues are always there – what makes a signal weak is how often we see it and whether or not we consciously observe it. Sometimes our observation is brief, or small, or at the edge of our consciousness, as if we saw someone out of the corner of our eye. We may pick up a small quirk in someone’s behaviour, or have a slight feeling of concern.

People tend to behave in consistent ways, so the signals accumulate as we experience the same behaviour again and again. Then we reach the point when the meaning of the signal is obvious, and we may wish we had said or done something about it earlier. The reason why doing something matters is that behaviour stays the same unless someone takes action to change it. Believing that behaviour will change on its own is often wishful thinking.

One of my friends had started a new job. After a while, she asked to be reassigned to a different manager, because she and her manager did not get along. She hadn’t had a great feeling about him at the job interview, but she’d figured it would be different once she was working with him. Perhaps it doesn’t surprise you that there was no difference between the interview and the job. The weak signal at the interview had foretold that they would not get along when working together.

Weak signals are not intuition, snap judgements, or thin-slicing. When we make snap judgements, our brain is using shortcuts, as Daniel Kahneman explains in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Snap judgements are not necessarily accurate. Observing weak signals may start unconsciously, but it becomes deliberate as we reflect on what we observe to determine if it is an actual signal. Interpreting weak signals makes use of Kahneman’s System 2, slow thinking, using factors that we consider with care. To be useful, weak signals need to be accurate.

Using weak signals

So what use are weak signals? We pay attention to them not just to see what comes next, but to intervene if needed. The tricky thing about this intervention is that it may have to come quite early to be effective. It could be seen as “overreacting” if you only look at the current situation, because it is a pre-reaction to the expected future situation.

For a widespread example, look at the response to the coronavirus pandemic. In the second wave of the pandemic, different levels of lockdown measures have been defined that come into play when the infection rate or number of occupied hospital beds reaches a threshold value. The measures are a response designed to change our behaviour before the pandemic gets worse. They are a pre-reaction to change the expected future situation.

Reacting to the very first signal might be premature, so it’s worth waiting for the second one to establish that the repetition is there. You can check your observations with another person, or directly with the person you are observing.

Creating a change

Once you think the signal is real you can ask yourself, “If this is what I am seeing now, what will it be like if it continues in this way?” If you like what’s coming, then you know what to expect. If you don’t, then you can consider creating a change.

When I started my first day at work at my first job, I came home feeling somewhat deflated. It had been a normal “first day” – I got introduced to colleagues, assigned a desk, shown around the office, the usual. Everyone was quite friendly, but I didn’t feel at home there. It’s premature to decide on your very first day that you don’t fit in, so I told myself to give it some time.

But as time passed, the feeling didn’t go away. It took me a while to pinpoint what was missing, which was that I wanted to have friends at work, not just co-workers. So for my next job I went looking for younger colleagues with whom I had more shared interests.

In this case, there was a weak initial signal and the person I was observing was myself. Over time, I confirmed that the signal was real, so I created a change in my work environment. My reaction was a long time coming. Had I reacted sooner, I could have created the change sooner.

Creating the change to get what you want is why weak signals matter. Start paying attention to the fleeting thoughts or feelings that are triggered by what you observe. Check if your observations are real, then take action. If you feel comfortable reacting sooner, pre-react to stop a situation from going further. If you prefer to be more cautious, take a bit longer to decide on your reaction. Just don’t leave it too long. As the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

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