“Some years ago,” Gladwell begins, a young couple went to visit a psychologist named John Gottman. The couple—given the pseudonyms of Bill and Susan—were very likable. Gotmann made a videotape of Bill and Susan having a conversation. During the videotaping, both Bill and Susan were hooked up to machines that measured their perspiration and heart rate. For the fifteen minutes of the video, they talked about dogs. Bill claimed that he didn’t particularly like dogs, and he and Susan bantered playfully about dogs’ “oily fur.” The conversation seemed perfectly ordinary.
The chapter begins with a seemingly ordinary conversation between two happy-seeming young people. But Gladwell will show that it’s possible to analyze the couple’s conversation so minutely that we can predict whether the couple will still be together in fifteen years.
One might assume that Bill and Susan’s conversation didn’t really tell us anything about who they were. But in fact, the conversation was very revealing. Gottman interviewed Bill and Susan, along with thousands of other couples. The goal of Gottman’s research was to study how couples interact. He believed that by measuring perspiration and heart rate, and by studying facial expressions, he could measure brief moments of conflict between people. The research yielded some surprising conclusions: by analyzing just fifteen minutes of conversation between a husband and wife, he could predict with ninety percent accuracy whether the couple would still be married in fifteen years.
One reason that it’s possible to tell so much about the world in just a few seconds is that human beings speak a secret language of facial cues, body language, etc. Thus, many of the intuitive snap judgments that people make are based in an instinctive awareness of other people’s facial cues and body language—Gottman has done more than almost anyone to explain how this “language” works.
John Gottman’s research is a good example of “thin-slicing”—in other words, using the adaptive unconscious to draw conclusions from small samples of experience. Gottman took a lot of time to draw conclusions from his research, but nevertheless, he drew impressive conclusions (about the fate of a marriage) from a very small amount of evidence (fifteen minutes of conversation).
Thin-slicing—the way that the adaptive unconscious makes sense of the external world—is one Blink’s key themes. Essentially, the concept of thin-slicing implies that intuition is empirical; even if snap judgments don’t take all the evidence into account, they require some evidence—at least a thin slice (for example, Gottman’s fifteen minutes of observation).
The key premise of Gottman’s research is that couples argue with one another in subtle, almost subliminal ways. For example, when Bill and Susan talked about dogs, Bill used a strategy of conversation called “yes, but”—in other words, he seemed to agree with Susan, but then contradicted her. There are many small ways for people to show their contempt for one another—for example, rolling one’s eyes. When Susan and Bill talked about dogs, Susan rolled her eyes on several occasions. Bill and Susan exhibited many other signs of marital tension. For example, when Bill asked Susan for credit for taking good care of their dog, Susan refused to give him credit. Also, Susan didn’t give Bill basic positive reinforcement (smiling, nodding, etc.) when Bill was talking about taking care of the dog. In short, Bill and Susan’s conversation—despite seeming normal to the untrained observer—betrayed many signs of marital tension, suggesting that Bill and Susan would divorce in the future.
Gottman suggests that the way that couples converse is indicative of the way they think about each other, and how well they get along with each other. Therefore, it’s possible for a trained expert like Gottman to draw some surprising conclusions about a couple after observing them for a very short amount of time. One interesting thing to keep in mind about Gottman’s experiment is that almost anyone can guess how well two people like each other after watching those two people converse—even if we can’t all be as insightful as Gottman, we can get a pretty decent “read” on people’s compatibility. As Gladwell argues, all human beings are capable of thin-slicing, especially with regard to other people.
The crux of Gottman’s research is that married couples communicate through subtle signals and patterns, such as facial cues, response times, and reinforcement techniques. A good analogy for Gottman’s point can be found in the history of coded messaging. During World War II, the British intelligence officers realized that it was possible to determine the “personalities” of enemy German broadcasters. Although the German broadcasters were sending messages in complex codes, they sent these messages in highly distinctive rhythms, or “fists.” In short, it was possible for British intelligence to determine which Germans were sending out codes, based strictly on the rhythm of the broadcasts. Some spies became so accustomed to the “fists” of certain German broadcasters that they could identify the broadcasters after a few seconds of listening to a coded broadcast. Furthermore, because spies could tell who was broadcasting which codes, they could also tell from where in Europe the broadcasts were being sent—and therefore, where the German army was moving.
Gladwell transitions from talking about Gottman’s psychological research to the history of code-breaking during World War II. The crux of the second example is that any code—whether it’s the Morse Code or a couple’s speech patterns—can be recognized very quickly, even if the code can’t necessarily be cracked. In Gladwell’s terminology, it’s possible to “thin-slice” a code very quickly: people can recognize the rhythmic patterns with which the code is being broadcast. Thus, during World War II, English intelligence workers could recognize the pattern of radio broadcasting, even if they had no idea what the broadcasts meant.
Gottman’s research, then, suggests that married couples communicate with a distinctive “fist”—a pattern of interaction that reveals itself within just a few minutes. Some fists are positive and healthy, and some are not. Gottman became so adept at analyzing communicative fists that he could graph a couple’s positive and negative feelings from minute to minute.
Gottman is adept at thin-slicing a couple’s interactions because he can pick up on certain patterns and “fists” of conversation after only a few minutes.
Gottman has become adept at “thin-slicing” conversations between people, focusing on the key aspects of their interactions. Gottman identifies four potential problems in a conversation: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt. By far, the best predictor of a couple’s happiness is the amount of contempt in their conversations. Gottman defines contempt as a form of criticism delivered from “a superior plane”—i.e., a situation in which one person thinks they’re superior to another. Gladwell proposes that the adaptive unconscious is capable of making the same kinds of quick assessments that Gottman has taught himself to make: in other words, to analyze a thin slice of evidence and draw conclusions from it.
For Gottman, contempt is a conversational style that indicates some deep-seeded problems with a relationship; relationships in which the two partners show contempt for each other rarely last long. In general, Gladwell argues, Gottman’s adeptness at drawing big conclusions from seemingly trivial conversations is a good example of the powers of the adaptive unconscious—and to some extent, all human beings are capable of thin-slicing, just like Gottman.
During a job interview, an interviewer tries to draw as much information as possible from an interviewee. One might think that, ideally, an interviewer should spend as much time as possible with the interviewee, in order to get the largest amount of evidence. But in fact, some psychological research suggests that interviewers can tell more about an interviewee in a few seconds than they can in a week. One psychologist conducted an experiment in which he assessed the personalities of eighty students, measuring their extraversion, emotional stability, agreeableness, etc. Then, he asked these students’ closest friends to assess the students using the same criteria. Finally, he asked strangers to guess the students’ personalities, based strictly on the students’ dorm rooms. Surprisingly, the strangers who visited the dorm rooms were slightly better at assessing the students’ personalities than the students’ close friends.
Continuing the pattern of earlier examples, Gladwell shows how short, quick evaluations can sometimes be more insightful than long, thorough evaluations, whether in job interviews or personality tests. It seems hard to believe that complete strangers could be more insightful about subjects’ personalities than the subjects’ best friends. But perhaps this makes sense: the subjects’ best friends will be biased, and have lots of confounding information about the subjects; total strangers, on the other hand, can be more objective in their assessments.
The strangers who assessed the students’ living spaces were engaging in thin-slicing: making big judgments about people (their personalities), based on a small sample of evidence (their rooms). One reason that thin-slicing is so effective is that it bypasses stereotyping. For example, it might be hard to believe that a muscular football player is a genius—stereotypes about athletes prevent an honest assessment of the football player’s mind. But if one were to visit the football player’s room and see his book collection, one might assess the football player’s IQ more accurately. In short, the strangers who assessed the students’ dorm rooms were conducting an amateur version of John Gottman’s marriage research—identifying the recognizable “fists” of student behavior and drawing conclusions about personality from the evidence.
In this passage, Gladwell introduces the paradoxical idea that thin-slicing can counteract stereotyping. One might think that thin-slicing is tailor-made for stereotyping, since it involves “judging a book by its cover.” But in fact, Gladwell argues, thin-slicing can be more fair-minded and objective than rational assessment because it reduces the number of opportunities for easy stereotyping. The passage also reinforces the concept of “fists” in thin-slicing: the reason that it’s possible to make accurate snap judgments is that small, recognizable “fists” of information tell a clear story sometimes.
Another good example of thin-slicing can be found in the world of medical malpractice insurance. Consider two ways of determining which doctors are most likely to be sued for malpractice: first, studying the doctors’ medical histories in great detail; second, listening to the doctors talk to their patients very briefly. The second approach has been shown to be much more effective in predicting medical malpractice. One reason this method is so effective is that people sue their doctors because they don’t like them, not just because their doctors engage in malpractice. Studies find that the doctors who are least likely to be sued talk to their patients for longer periods of time than the average doctor, and also make more “orienting statements,” such as, “I’m going to examine you now.” Some psychologists have concluded that it’s possible to predict a doctor’s likelihood of being sued for malpractice based entirely on the speech patterns the doctor uses while communicating with patients. Doctors tend to exhibit a distinctive “signature” while talking with their patients—therefore, experts can predict the doctors’ likelihood of being sued based on just a few seconds of communication.
This example emphasizes the point Gladwell has already made: sometimes, tiny, seemingly trivial pieces of information speak louder than mountains of thorough evidence. Thus, it’s possible to tell more about a doctor from a couple seconds of conversation than from thorough medical records. It’s interesting to note that, in the case of medical malpractice, a doctor’s likelihood of being sued doesn’t necessarily correlate with their abilities—in other words, a doctor who gets sued for medical malpractice isn’t necessarily better than doctor who doesn’t get sued. Gladwell’s point is that, good or bad, a doctor who establishes a good rapport with their patients will be less likely to anger the patients, and therefore less likely to face a lawsuit.
It’s striking to consider how many different professions have a term for the ability to draw conclusions from small slices of evidence. In the French military, for example, a general is expected to have “the power of the glance”—the ability to judge the right strategy after just a few seconds of looking at the battlefield. The Hollywood producer Brian Grazer tells a story about meeting the young Tom Hanks for a few seconds and instinctively “knowing” that Hanks would become a huge movie star.
This passage brings up a point to which Gladwell will return in a later chapter: professional people are considered “experts” in part because of their ability to make intelligent snap judgments; for example, to judge which people could and couldn’t be big stars in just a few moments.
It’s important to recognize that thin-slicing isn’t an “exotic gift”—all human beings are capable of thin-slicing to some degree. Recently, psychologists presented Gottman’s videos to a group of laypeople. The psychologists gave the laypeople some simple instructions about how to interpret the conversations, and allowed the laypeople to watch each video twice. The psychologists found that laypeople could predict a marriage’s success with an 80 percent success rate—not a bad accuracy at all. In short, Gladwell concludes, “We’re old hands at thin-slicing.”
The chapter ends with an important clarification. So far, Gladwell has been talking about experts, insiders, and scientists. But he then argues that thin-slicing isn’t just for geniuses and experts—any human being knows how to thin-slice. True, we may not be as good at evaluating couples’ relationships as Gottman is, but, in a way, we’re “old hands” at thin-slicing, because we use it in our actions and interactions every day.