Thin Slicing and Decision Making: Intuition, Part 2.

by Alexander Heyne · 4 comments

Enter Gladwell

In Blink Malcolm Gladwell talks about a concept I found pretty interesting called “Thin-Slicing.” Essentially, thin-slicing means extracting large amounts of valuable information in a very brief period of time, and he gives numerous examples describing its effectiveness in things like predicting divorce, reading peoples emotions, and in advertising and sales.

Why didn’t you put the goddamn toilet seat down??

John Gottman is one example of Gladwell’s thin-slicer.  Gottman is a married couple counselor that analyses a couple’s performance when they are together with each other.

Reading the facial expressions on a person’s face, disgust, for example, within an hour of interaction he can predict the married couple’s future. With an accuracy rate of 95%.  Later, he discovered with another professor that three minutes of interaction was enough to give an extremely reliable indication.

Gladwell asks the question: 

“Can a marriage really be understood in one sitting? Yes it can, and so can lots of other seemingly complex situations” (Blink, 23)… That is why a marriage can be read and decoded so easily, because some key part of human activity — whether it is something as simple as pounding out a Morse Code message or as complex as being married to someone — has an identifiable and stable pattern.  Predicting divorce… is pattern recognition” (29). 

Why complete strangers may know you better than your friends

Psychologist Samuel Gosling did a study to inquire about how well thin-slicing works in regard to determining

Can strangers really know you better than you closest friends?

people’s personalities.  He essentially had a group of eighty college students as his sample, and had close friends of them fill out a copy of the “Big Five Inventory.”

The Big Five is essentially a questionnaire that measures a person’s personality in a couple different ways such as extraversion, conscientiousness, emotional stability, etc. The other group was comprised of strangers that went into the students’ bedrooms and then tried to fill out the same questionnaire after looking around.

The results?

In estimating extraversion and one other category, the friends were much better than the bedroom snooping strangers.

However, in all of the other categories (3/5), the total strangers scored more accurately.  The implication that Gladwell notes is that it’s quite possible for people who have never met us and have only known us for a brief time to understand and know us better than long time friends.  His conclusion is a little bit exaggerated, but you see the implications.

I’ll pass on the colonoscopy, thanks

Another interesting study was doing by the psychologist Nalini Ambady.  Ambady used a similar thin slicing method and wanted to see if she could thin slice to quickly determine which doctors and specialists likely had malpractice suites filed against them, and which ones were likely to in the future.

Ambady took about 30 seconds of doctor and patient dialogue and analyzed certain factors such as tone of voice.  The result? Ambady and her colleagues were shocked at the accuracy of their results.

Unsympathetic doctors that spent less time and sounded more dominant were at a much higher risk for malpractice suits, and many had already been through multiple lawsuits.  They predicted with startling accuracy a situation that was previously thought to be extremely complex by insurance companies.

The last one from Gladwell – How mommy knows you ran over her cat

Probably one of the most noticeable (on a daily basis) uses of thin-slicing is reading the emotions on the faces of others. There are several reasons why this is an extremely interesting field to look into:

  1. Silvan Tomkins and Paul Ekman, after collecting data from remote tribes and modern people all over the world realized that there are many fundamental, underlying, shared facial expressions with little to no variation cross-culturally.
    Thin Slicing: Is this guy capable of murder?
  2. Emotions can actually start on the face. Ekman and some of his associates found that emotions also work from the outside in.  Smiling produces changes in the autonomic nervous system. Mimicking anger will also produces changes accordingly.
  3. Gladwell also talks about the “involuntary expressive system” where our facial expressions truthfully and naturally demonstrate our emotional state.  Regardless of how good we think we are at lying, there are almost always truthful indicators of our intentions and thought patterns smeared all over our faces.
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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

afheyne August 22, 2011 at 6:46 pm

Thanks! Also, that’s a great recommendation. In the coming months I’m going to be breaking out into Video blogging, so stay tuned for that!


Karan July 18, 2013 at 2:41 pm

Thinslicing has it’s benefits but also has it’s downsides – sometimes fatal!
Check out this story for more.


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