by Malcolm Gladwell
Reviewed by Laura Oliveto, SSDM
If you’re not familiar with the phrase “thin-slicing,” don’t worry. I wasn’t either. But, as it turns out, even if we don’t know what it means, we actually use it all the time.
Thin-slicing is the practice of making judgments based on our instincts. After years of observing people and their behavior, we instinctively pick up on clues, especially from people we get to know well, like parents, children and spouses. The term comes from the psychology and philosophy sciences and it describes the ability to find patterns in events based only on "thin slices," or narrow windows of experience.
But what about people we don’t get the chance to observe regularly? Can we learn to “read” the true meanings of their comments and statements? The answer is yes, but it’s not a process that you would pick up overnight. It involves keen observation.
It’s akin to body language but is based on subtle facial expressions that give away our true feelings, even though we might be saying something different, or even totally opposite.
Thin-slicing is the science of breaking the face up into “zones,” including eyes, lips and brows and each of these areas provide a “tell,” just like watching another player at the poker table.
And it’s not just people, either. At the heart of thin slicing is the notion of our “adaptive unconscious,” predicated on the concept of rapid cognition, the process by which people make quick assessments of the world using a limited amount of evidence, or instinctive hunches, based on conscious or unconscious biases. Author Malcolm Gladwell refers to thin-slicing as “the power of thinking without thinking,” and in the book “Blink,” he gives many examples of situations where instinct trumps knowledge, where somehow you just “know” something that you didn’t actually know. According to Gladwell, “It’s the tendency that we have as human beings to reach very rapid, very profound and sophisticated conclusions based on very thin slices of experiences.”
Research has found that brief judgments based on thin-slicing are similar to those judgments based on much more information. Judgments based on thin-slicing can be as accurate, or even more so, than judgments based on much more information.
So, next time you get a “gut feeling,” it might be less of a random hunch than you think. It is more likely to be based on a lifetime of mentally cataloging and “thin-slicing” your personal experiences. However, Gladwell posits that these unconscious biases often can led us astray. He encourages us to understand our prejudices and avoid letting them lead to irrational conclusions, as this might lead us to decisions we would not make if we were being completely impartial.