Can you predict if a doctor will get sued for malpractice…just by listening to her voice?
Can you tell if a tennis pro will default on a serve…before he actually serves?
Can you know if a piece of art is forged at first glance?
Would you have to be a savant to make these predictions? A genius? Blessed with a secret power of deduction no one else has?
The simple answer is people know a lot just based on their first instincts. When we rely solely on a very small sample of information, it’s called “thin-slicing.”
Now the question is, can your first “gut” reaction always be right?
Your Gut Reaction
For our Science of People book club, I chose Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. In it, Gladwell takes an interesting (and controversial to some) approach to backtracking on the conventional wisdom that we will almost always make better judgements and decisions when we have as much information as possible.
Instead, he argues, that our subconscious supercomputer brains can actually process the answer we need in less than two seconds using a thin-slice of data.
In an age where we are bombarded with information constantly, is all that extra data actually helping us make better decisions? Or does all that info cause our judgements to be clouded, thoughts to lean towards biases and the actual decision to lead us astray?
In this post we are going to try to convince you of three of Gladwell’s principles:
- Quick decisions are every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.
- Your gut tells you when to be wary and when to be trusting.
- Our snap judgments can be educated and controlled.
So how can you tap into your own subconscious and learn to thin-slice effectively? Check out what Gladwell found and what you can do about it:
#1. Let Your Unconscious Take the Lead
We all know our brains have incredible power and ability. Most of us think of our brains in three ways:
- The conscious: your awareness at any present moment
- The subconscious: the information that you can access in your mind (like your favorite recipe for brownies!)
- The unconscious: filled with not only our basic primitive instincts, but also tons of information that we either can’t or have trouble accessing on our own
Gladwell talks about the “adaptive unconscious,” he calls this the internal supercomputer of the brain that allows us to process information quickly. In fact, it’s working all the time; the book uses an example of crossing the street, looking up and seeing:
A bus coming straight at you.
- What do you do? Stop and think about all the possibilities of what might happen and how you should start getting out of the way? Or do you just move without thinking?
- Or course, thankfully, our adaptive unconscious does a lot more than save us from impending doom. It’s also an incredible tool for creating snap judgements, especially in our interactions with other people.
Gladwell gives one example of the psychologist Nalini Ambady, who found that if she gave college students a silent two second clip of a teacher to watch then they could thin-slice the effectiveness of that teacher with essentially the same results as a student who sat in class with that teacher for an entire semester.
I want you think about how you’ve thin-sliced in your own lives:
- Have you ever had a bad feeling about someone…and found out later you were right?
- Have you ever had a good feeling about someone…and found out later you were wrong? What happened?
- From Now On: Pay attention to your gut reaction the next time you meet someone new and then follow-up with your gut. Were you right? Wrong? Start learning from your mistakes.
#2. Mind Reading
Two scientists are considered the godfathers of mind reading: Silvan Tomkins and Paul Ekman.
Tomkins has the uncanny ability to look at a face and read facts that most people can’t off it, he can predict if someone is lying or what crimes someone on a Wanted poster committed…let’s just say he was the most popular man at cocktail parties.
When they teamed up, Tomkins and Ekman highlighted 43 different movements faces could make and studied them deeply, literally sitting across from each other for hours a day making those faces.
When they learned those 43, they continued to add until they settled on just around 3,000 facial displays, which make up the Facial Action Coding System (FACS).
Emotion, and even psychical reactions (stress, anger, sweat) can all actually happen if we just practice making the faces associated with those feelings. Just by acting.
In the book, Ekman cites a press conference given by a man named Kim Philby (he had been operating as a spy for Russia while in the British equivalent of the CIA for over twenty years). Ekman notes how in a few distinct moments his microexpressions give away his guilt.
Once you know what to look for, it’s quite easy to spot.
It goes to show in all the research Tomkins and Ekman have performed that humans aren’t as good at our ‘poker faces’ as we think we are.
In fact, anyone who is able to thin-slice the microexpressions of a face, that fleeting moment where we show our real emotion automatically before we actively cover it up, can immediately tell what the other person is thinking and feeling.
There is no hiding.
- Learn how to spot all 7 microexpressions in our faces tutorial.
#3. Get in Touch with Your Unconscious
One of the most fascinating examples in the book is with Dr. John Gottman. He runs a “Love Lab” at the University of Washington and has been able to thin-slice watching a video of a married couple talk into a remarkably accurate marriage predictability tool.
If he watches a couple talk, not fight, just talk, for an hour, he has a 95% success rate in determining if they will still be married in 15 years. Yet, even if he watches for just 15 minutes, that rate is still at 90%.
Now, you might think Dr. Gottman is a savant when it comes to this kind of thing, that he has the “feel” for interpersonal dynamics.
Not quite. It all boils down to what he calls, “the four horsemen:”
The one that really sticks out to Dr. Gottman, the feeling that can be thin-sliced out of all the thin-slicing is contempt.
What he really does, and teaches his students to do is look for that. When you’re able to focus in on one thing and know what you’re looking for, separating the signal from the noise so to speak, suddenly the answer appears.
To illustrate the point, Dr. Gottman’s divorce prediction test was re-worked and broken down by a group of psychologists. They came up with a list of things to look for, including the four horsemen, and then gave the videos and lists to non-experts.
These non-experts watched the videos in 30 second chunks, twice, using their list of things to look for and then were asked to predict.
The non-experts hit a just over 80% accuracy rate on which marriages were going to still be going strong in 15 years.
So, not only can thin-slicing be taught, but it turns out (unsurprisingly) we all have a little bit of it inside ourselves already. In fact, many of the experts were able to teach either Gladwell or someone else how to thin-slice effectively without incredible amounts of time or effort.
This plays right into the concept that we can actually tap into our unconscious and learn how to use it more effectively. The key is learning what exactly to look for. Here is what contempt looks like, a simple one-sided mouth raise:
#4. What’s Your Bias?
Researchers at Harvard University have created the Implicit Association Test (IAT). It’s a quick and easy way to test observation. They claim:
“We make connections much more quickly between pairs of ideas that are already related in our minds than we do between pairs of ideas that are unfamiliar to us.”
So, for example, we might very quickly associate the name “Bob” when it is paired with “male” but if we had to associate “entrepreneur” with “female” when it’s tied to “career” that actually gives more people pause, because we tend to think of anything associated with a career to be more male orientated.
This test goes far beyond just names, it can apply to biases on gender and race as well.
Some uncomfortable truths can quickly appear, as the IAT is geared towards moving past our conscious level ideas about race or gender and into our unconscious level, the things that spring to mind immediately before we have time to think (or correct) ourselves.
You can actually take a sample IAT for yourself.
These biases aren’t something we’re born with, but rather picked up over the course of our lives from experiences, movies, books and relationships, just to name a few.
All of that data, even if we can’t quite remember or access it, is crunched and stored in our unconscious, quite easy for our brain to reach even if what tumbles out actually completely misaligns with the real values and ideas we’d express if we were asked to give our opinion.
This is one area where thin-slicing can cause problems.
If your unconscious brain is already biased towards a race, for example, then without you even knowing it are you going to display microexpressions and body language that they will be able to pick up on as discomfort? Which could automatically make them uncomfortable, which can then trigger your conscious brain that they are being standoffish towards you?
See how it can become a disaster without you even really understanding what happened?
Gladwell highlights how something like this can go awry in job interviews. When you look at the simple fact that vast majority of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are white men, probably an obvious bias there, but what about the fact that almost 60% of them are over six feet tall?
Now, that’s pretty interesting, considering only 14.5% of American men are six feet or taller. So, is that another unconscious bias at work? That men over six feet tall fit our image of what a leader ‘looks like’?
- Trust Your Gut
- Your Intuition is More Accurate Than Your Logic
- You Can Improve Your Snap Judgements
Blink teaches us some interesting thoughts on our unconscious and thin-slicing.
If you’ve ever been someone who intuitively has a lot of gut feeling, then you might just be more tapped into your unconscious and are willing to go with it than others.
I think we can all be better served by spending more time educating ourselves about our unconscious. Gladwell shows some pretty interesting examples of how just a bit of effort and a gentle push in one direction allowed ‘students’ to use their own snap judgements in a way that was almost as effective as the experts.
So, while it can be seen that thin-slicing can provide good results as opposed to slower and more deliberative thinking, it’s also important to be aware that it can have a dark side.
You want to be able to spot your own biases, recognize when they are happening and work towards changing them with new data and information. Use your thin-slicing powers for good!
About Vanessa Van Edwards
Lead Investigator, Science of People
I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.
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