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Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking


The Theory of Thin Slices: How a Little Bit of Knowledge Goes
a Long Way

Some years ago, a young couple came to the University of Washington
to visit the laboratory of a psychologist named John Gottman. They
were in their twenties, blond and blue-eyed with stylishly tousled
haircuts and funky glasses. Later, some of the people who worked in
the lab would say they were the kind of couple that is easy to like
--- intelligent and attractive and funny in a droll, ironic kind of
way --- and that much is immediately obvious from the videotape
Gottman made of their visit. The husband, whom I'll call Bill, had
an endearingly playful manner. His wife, Susan, had a sharp,
deadpan wit.

They were led into a small room on the second floor of the
nondescript two-story building that housed Gottman's operations,
and they sat down about five feet apart on two office chairs
mounted on raised platforms. They both had electrodes and sensors
clipped to their fingers and ears, which measured things like their
heart rate, how much they were sweating, and the temperature of
their skin. Under their chairs, a "jiggle-o-meter" on the platform
measured how much each of them moved around. Two video cameras, one
aimed at each person, recorded everything they said and did. For
fifteen minutes, they were left alone with the cameras rolling,
with instructions to discuss any topic from their marriage that had
become a point of contention. For Bill and Sue it was their dog.
They lived in a small apartment and had just gotten a very large
puppy. Bill didn't like the dog; Sue did. For fifteen minutes, they
discussed what they ought to do about it.

The videotape of Bill and Sue's discussion seems, at least at
first, to be a random sample of a very ordinary kind of
conversation that couples have all the time. No one gets angry.
There are no scenes, no breakdowns, no epiphanies. "I'm just not a
dog person" is how Bill starts things off, in a perfectly
reasonable tone of voice. He complains a little bit --- but about
the dog, not about Susan. She complains, too, but there are also
moments when they simply forget that they are supposed to be
arguing. When the subject of whether the dog smells comes up, for
example, Bill and Sue banter back and forth happily, both with a
half smile on their lips.

Sue: Sweetie! She's not smelly . . .

Bill: Did you smell her today?

Sue: I smelled her. She smelled good. I petted her, and my hands
didn't stink or feel oily. Your hands have never smelled

Bill: Yes, sir.

Sue: I've never let my dog get oily.

Bill: Yes, sir. She's a dog.

Sue: My dog has never gotten oily. You'd better be careful.

Bill: No, you'd better be careful.

Sue: No, you'd better be careful. . . . Don't call my dog oily,

1. The Love Lab

How much do you think can be learned about Sue and Bill's marriage
by watching that fifteen-minute videotape? Can we tell if their
relationship is healthy or unhealthy? I suspect that most of us
would say that Bill and Sue's dog talk doesn't tell us much. It's
much too short. Marriages are buffeted by more important things,
like money and sex and children and jobs and in-laws, in constantly
changing combinations. Sometimes couples are very happy together.
Some days they fight. Sometimes they feel as though they could
almost kill each other, but then they go on vacation and come back
sounding like newlyweds. In order to "know" a couple, we feel as
though we have to observe them over many weeks and months and see
them in every state --- happy, tired, angry, irritated, delighted,
having a nervous breakdown, and so on --- and not just in the
relaxed and chatty mode that Bill and Sue seemed to be in. To make
an accurate prediction about something as serious as the future of
a marriage --- indeed, to make a prediction of any sort --- it
seems that we would have to gather a lot of information and in as
many different contexts as possible.

But John Gottman has proven that we don't have to do that at all.
Since the 1980s, Gottman has brought more than three thousand
married couples --- just like Bill and Sue --- into that small room
in his "love lab" near the University of Washington campus. Each
couple has been videotaped, and the results have been analyzed
according to something Gottman dubbed SPAFF (for specific affect),
a coding system that has twenty separate categories corresponding
to every conceivable emotion that a married couple might express
during a conversation. Disgust, for example, is 1, contempt is 2,
anger is 7, defensiveness is 10, whining is 11, sadness is 12,
stonewalling is 13, neutral is 14, and so on. Gottman has taught
his staff how to read every emotional nuance in people's facial
expressions and how to interpret seemingly ambiguous bits of
dialogue. When they watch a marriage videotape, they assign a SPAFF
code to every second of the couple's interaction, so that a
fifteen-minute conflict discussion ends up being translated into a
row of eighteen hundred numbers --- nine hundred for the husband
and nine hundred for the wife. The notation "7, 7, 14, 10, 11, 11,"
for instance, means that in one six-second stretch, one member of
the couple was briefly angry, then neutral, had a moment of
defensiveness, and then began whining. Then the data from the
electrodes and sensors is factored in, so that the coders know, for
example, when the husband's or the wife's heart was pounding or
when his or her temperature was rising or when either of them was
jiggling in his or her seat, and all of that information is fed
into a complex equation.

On the basis of those calculations, Gottman has proven something
remarkable. If he analyzes an hour of a husband and wife talking,
he can predict with 95 percent accuracy whether that couple will
still be married fifteen years later. If he watches a couple for
fifteen minutes, his success rate is around 90 percent. Recently, a
professor who works with Gottman named Sybil Carrère, who was
playing around with some of the videotapes, trying to design a new
study, discovered that if they looked at only three minutes
of a couple talking, they could still predict with fairly
impressive accuracy who was going to get divorced and who was going
to make it. The truth of a marriage can be understood in a much
shorter time than anyone ever imagined.

John Gottman is a middle-aged man with owl-like eyes, silvery hair,
and a neatly trimmed beard. He is short and very charming, and when
he talks about something that excites him --- which is nearly all
the time --- his eyes light up and open even wider. During the
Vietnam War, he was a conscientious objector, and there is still
something of the '60s hippie about him, like the Mao cap he
sometimes wears over his braided yarmulke. He is a psychologist by
training, but he also studied mathematics at MIT, and the rigor and
precision of mathematics clearly moves him as much as anything
else. When I met Gottman, he had just published his most ambitious
book, a dense five-hundred-page treatise called The Mathematics
of Divorce,
and he attempted to give me a sense of his
argument, scribbling equations and impromptu graphs on a paper
napkin until my head began to swim.

Gottman may seem to be an odd example in a book about the thoughts
and decisions that bubble up from our unconscious. There's nothing
instinctive about his approach. He's not making snap judgments.
He's sitting down with his computer and painstakingly analyzing
videotapes, second by second. His work is a classic example of
conscious and deliberate thinking. But Gottman, it turns out, can
teach us a great deal about a critical part of rapid cognition
known as thin-slicing. "Thin-slicing" refers to the ability of our
unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on
very narrow slices of experience. When Evelyn Harrison looked at
the kouros and blurted out, "I'm sorry to hear that," she was
thin-slicing; so were the Iowa gamblers when they had a stress
reaction to the red decks after just ten cards.

Thin-slicing is part of what makes the unconscious so dazzling. But
it's also what we find most problematic about rapid cognition. How
is it possible to gather the necessary information for a
sophisticated judgment in such a short time? The answer is that
when our unconscious engages in thin-slicing, what we are doing is
an automated, accelerated unconscious version of what Gottman does
with his videotapes and equations. Can a marriage really be
understood in one sitting? Yes it can, and so can lots of other
seemingly complex situations. What Gottman has done is to show us

2. Marriage and Morse Code

I watched the videotape of Bill and Sue with Amber Tabares, a
graduate student in Gottman's lab who is a trained SPAFF coder. We
sat in the same room that Bill and Sue used, watching their
interaction on a monitor. The conversation began with Bill. He
liked their old dog, he said. He just didn't like their new dog. He
didn't speak angrily or with any hostility. It seemed like he
genuinely just wanted to explain his feelings.

If we listened closely, Tabares pointed out, it was clear that Bill
was being very defensive. In the language of SPAFF, he was
cross-complaining and engaging in "yes-but" tactics --- appearing
to agree but then taking it back. Bill was coded as defensive, as
it turned out, for forty of the first sixty-six seconds of their
conversation. As for Sue, while Bill was talking, on more than one
occasion she rolled her eyes very quickly, which is a classic sign
of contempt. Bill then began to talk about his objection to the pen
where the dog lives. Sue replied by closing her eyes and then
assuming a patronizing lecturing voice. Bill went on to say that he
didn't want a fence in the living room. Sue said, "I don't want to
argue about that," and rolled her eyes --- another indication of
contempt. "Look at that," Tabares said. "More contempt. We've
barely started and we've seen him be defensive for almost the whole
time, and she has rolled her eyes several times."

At no time as the conversation continued did either of them show
any overt signs of hostility. Only subtle things popped up for a
second or two, prompting Tabares to stop the tape and point them
out. Some couples, when they fight, fight. But these two
were a lot less obvious. Bill complained that the dog cut into
their social life, since they always had to come home early for
fear of what the dog might do to their apartment. Sue responded
that that wasn't true, arguing, "If she's going to chew anything,
she's going to do it in the first fifteen minutes that we're gone."
Bill seemed to agree with that. He nodded lightly and said, "Yeah,
I know," and then added, "I'm not saying it's rational. I just
don't want to have a dog."

Tabares pointed at the videotape. "He started out with 'Yeah, I
know.' But it's a yes-but. Even though he started to validate her,
he went on to say that he didn't like the dog. He's really being
defensive. I kept thinking, He's so nice. He's doing all this
validation. But then I realized he was doing the yes-but. It's easy
to be fooled by them."

Bill went on: "I'm getting way better. You've got to admit it. I'm
better this week than last week, and the week before and the week

Tabares jumped in again. "In one study, we were watching newlyweds,
and what often happened with the couples who ended up in divorce is
that when one partner would ask for credit, the other spouse
wouldn't give it. And with the happier couples, the spouse would
hear it and say, 'You're right.' That stood out. When you nod and
say 'uh-huh' or 'yeah,' you are doing that as a sign of support,
and here she never does it, not once in the entire session, which
none of us had realized until we did the coding.

"It's weird," she went on. "You don't get the sense that they are
an unhappy couple when they come in. And when they were finished,
they were instructed to watch their own discussion, and they
thought the whole thing was hilarious. They seem fine, in a way.
But I don't know. They haven't been married that long. They're
still in the glowy phase. But the fact is that she's completely
inflexible. They are arguing about dogs, but it's really about how
whenever they have a disagreement, she's completely inflexible.
It's one of those things that could cause a lot of long-term harm.
I wonder if they'll hit the seven-year wall. Is there enough
positive emotion there? Because what seems positive isn't actually
positive at all."

What was Tabares looking for in the couple? On a technical level,
she was measuring the amount of positive and negative emotion,
because one of Gottman's findings is that for a marriage to
survive, the ratio of positive to negative emotion in a given
encounter has to be at least five to one. On a simpler level,
though, what Tabares was looking for in that short discussion was a
pattern in Bill and Sue's marriage, because a central argument in
Gottman's work is that all marriages have a distinctive pattern, a
kind of marital DNA, that surfaces in any kind of meaningful
interaction. This is why Gottman asks couples to tell the story of
how they met, because he has found that when a husband and wife
recount the most important episode in their relationship, that
pattern shows up right away.

"It's so easy to tell," Gottman says. "I just looked at this tape
yesterday. The woman says, 'We met at a ski weekend, and he was
there with a bunch of his friends, and I kind of liked him and we
made a date to be together. But then he drank too much, and he went
home and went to sleep, and I was waiting for him for three hours.
I woke him up, and I said I don't appreciate being treated this
way. You're really not a nice person. And he said, yeah, hey, I
really had a lot to drink.'" There was a troubling pattern in their
first interaction, and the sad truth was that that pattern
persisted throughout their relationship. "It's not that hard,"
Gottman went on. "When I first started doing these interviews, I
thought maybe we were getting these people on a crappy day. But the
prediction levels are just so high, and if you do it again, you get
the same pattern over and over again."

One way to understand what Gottman is saying about marriages is to
use the analogy of what people in the world of Morse code call a
fist. Morse code is made up of dots and dashes, each of which has
its own prescribed length. But no one ever replicates those
prescribed lengths perfectly. When operators send a message ---
particularly using the old manual machines known as the straight
key or the bug --- they vary the spacing or stretch out the dots
and dashes or combine dots and dashes and spaces in a particular
rhythm. Morse code is like speech. Everyone has a different

In the Second World War, the British assembled thousands of
so-called interceptors --- mostly women --- whose job it was to
tune in every day and night to the radio broadcasts of the various
divisions of the German military. The Germans were, of course,
broadcasting in code, so --- at least in the early part of the war
--- the British couldn't understand what was being said. But
that didn't necessarily matter, because before long, just by
listening to the cadence of the transmission, the interceptors
began to pick up on the individual fists of the German operators,
and by doing so, they knew something nearly as important, which was
who was doing the sending. "If you listened to the same call
signs over a certain period, you would begin to recognize that
there were, say, three or four different operators in that unit,
working on a shift system, each with his own characteristics," says
Nigel West, a British military historian. "And invariably, quite
apart from the text, there would be the preambles, and the illicit
exchanges. How are you today? How's the girlfriend? What's the
weather like in Munich? So you fill out a little card, on which you
write down all that kind of information, and pretty soon you have a
kind of relationship with that person."

The interceptors came up with descriptions of the fists and styles
of the operators they were following. They assigned them names and
assembled elaborate profiles of their personalities. After they
identified the person who was sending the message, the interceptors
would then locate their signal. So now they knew something more.
They knew who was where. West goes on: "The interceptors had
such a good handle on the transmitting characteristics of the
German radio operators that they could literally follow them around
Europe --- wherever they were. That was extraordinarily valuable in
constructing an order of battle, which is a diagram of what the
individual military units in the field are doing and what their
location is. If a particular radio operator was with a particular
unit and transmitting from Florence, and then three weeks later you
recognized that same operator, only this time he was in Linz, then
you could assume that that particular unit had moved from northern
Italy to the eastern front. Or you would know that a particular
operator was with a tank repair unit and he always came up on the
air every day at twelve o'clock. But now, after a big battle, he's
coming up at twelve, four in the afternoon, and seven in the
evening, so you can assume that unit has a lot of work going on.
And in a moment of crisis, when someone very high up asks, 'Can you
really be absolutely certain that this particular Luftwaffe
Fliegerkorps [German air force squadron] is outside of
Tobruk and not in Italy?' you can answer, 'Yes, that was Oscar, we
are absolutely sure.'"

The key thing about fists is that they emerge naturally. Radio
operators don't deliberately try to sound distinctive. They simply
end up sounding distinctive, because some part of their personality
appears to express itself automatically and unconsciously in the
way they work the Morse code keys. The other thing about a fist is
that it reveals itself in even the smallest sample of Morse code.
We have to listen to only a few characters to pick out an
individual's pattern. It doesn't change or disappear for stretches
or show up only in certain words or phrases. That's why the British
interceptors could listen to just a few bursts and say, with
absolute certainty, "It's Oscar, which means that yes, his unit is
now definitely outside of Tobruk." An operator's fist is

What Gottman is saying is that a relationship between two people
has a fist as well: a distinctive signature that arises naturally
and automatically. 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, like tracking Morse Code
operators, is pattern recognition.

"People are in one of two states in a relationship," Gottman went
on. "The first is what I call positive sentiment override, where
positive emotion overrides irritability. It's like a buffer. Their
spouse will do something bad, and they'll say, 'Oh, he's just in a
crummy mood.' Or they can be in negative sentiment override, so
that even a relatively neutral thing that a partner says gets
perceived as negative. In the negative sentiment override state,
people draw lasting conclusions about each other. If their spouse
does something positive, it's a selfish person doing a positive
thing. It's really hard to change those states, and those states
determine whether when one party tries to repair things, the other
party sees that as repair or hostile manipulation. For example, I'm
talking with my wife, and she says, 'Will you shut up and let me
finish?' In positive sentiment override, I say, 'Sorry, go ahead.'
I'm not very happy, but I recognize the repair. In negative
sentiment override, I say, 'To hell with you, I'm not getting a
chance to finish either. You're such a bitch, you remind me of your

As he was talking, Gottman drew a graph on a piece of paper that
looked a lot like a chart of the ups and downs of the stock market
over the course of a typical day. What he does, he explains, is
track the ups and downs of a couple's level of positive and
negative emotion, and he's found that it doesn't take very long to
figure out which way the line on the graph is going. "Some go up,
some go down," he says. "But once they start going down, toward
negative emotion, ninety-four percent will continue going down.
They start on a bad course and they can't correct it. I don't think
of this as just a slice in time. It's an indication of how they
view their whole relationship."

3. The Importance of Contempt

Let's dig a little deeper into the secret of Gottman's success
rate. Gottman has discovered that marriages have distinctive
signatures, and we can find that signature by collecting very
detailed emotional information from the interaction of a couple.
But there's something else that is very interesting about Gottman's
system, and that is the way in which he manages to simplify the
task of prediction. I hadn't realized how much of an issue this was
until I tried thin-slicing couples myself. I got one of Gottman's
tapes, which had on it ten three-minute clips of different couples
talking. Half the couples, I was told, split up at some point in
the fifteen years after their discussion was filmed. Half were
still together. Could I guess which was which? I was pretty
confident I could. But I was wrong. I was terrible at it. I
answered five correctly, which is to say that I would have done
just as well by flipping a coin.

My difficulty arose from the fact that the clips were utterly
overwhelming. The husband would say something guarded. The wife
would respond quietly. Some fleeting emotion would flash across her
face. He would start to say something and then stop. She would
scowl. He would laugh. Someone would mutter something. Someone
would frown. I would rewind the tape and look at it again, and I
would get still more information. I'd see a little trace of a
smile, or I'd pick up on a slight change in tone. It was all too
much. In my head, I was frantically trying to determine the ratios
of positive emotion to negative emotion. But what counted as
positive, and what counted as negative? I knew from Susan and Bill
that a lot of what looked positive was actually negative. And I
also knew that there were no fewer than twenty separate emotional
states on the SPAFF chart. Have you ever tried to keep track of
twenty different emotions simultaneously? Now, granted, I'm not a
marriage counselor. But that same tape has been given to almost two
hundred marital therapists, marital researchers, pastoral
counselors, and graduate students in clinical psychology, as well
as newlyweds, people who were recently divorced, and people who
have been happily married for a long time --- in other words,
almost two hundred people who know a good deal more about marriage
than I do --- and none of them was any better than I was. The group
as a whole guessed right 53.8 percent of the time, which is just
above chance. The fact that there was a pattern didn't much matter.
There were so many other things going on so quickly in those three
minutes that we couldn't find the pattern.

Gottman, however, doesn't have this problem. He's gotten so good at
thin-slicing marriages that he says he can be in a restaurant and
eavesdrop on the couple one table over and get a pretty good sense
of whether they need to start thinking about hiring lawyers and
dividing up custody of the children. How does he do it? He has
figured out that he doesn't need to pay attention to everything
that happens. I was overwhelmed by the task of counting negativity,
because everywhere I looked, I saw negative emotions. Gottman is
far more selective. He has found that he can find out much of what
he needs to know just by focusing on what he calls the Four
Horsemen: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt.
Even within the Four Horsemen, in fact, there is one emotion that
he considers the most important of all: contempt. If Gottman
observes one or both partners in a marriage showing contempt toward
the other, he considers it the single most important sign that the
marriage is in trouble.

"You would think that criticism would be the worst," Gottman says,
"because criticism is a global condemnation of a person's
character. Yet contempt is qualitatively different from criticism.
With criticism I might say to my wife, 'You never listen, you are
really selfish and insensitive.' Well, she's going to respond
defensively to that. That's not very good for our problem solving
and interaction. But if I speak from a superior plane, that's far
more damaging, and contempt is any statement made from a higher
level. A lot of the time it's an insult: 'You are a bitch. You're
scum.' It's trying to put that person on a lower plane than you.
It's hierarchical."

Gottman has found, in fact, that the presence of contempt in a
marriage can even predict such things as how many colds a husband
or a wife gets; in other words, having someone you love express
contempt toward you is so stressful that it begins to affect the
functioning of your immune system. "Contempt is closely related to
disgust, and what disgust and contempt are about is completely
rejecting and excluding someone from the community. The big gender
difference with negative emotions is that women are more critical,
and men are more likely to stonewall. We find that women start
talking about a problem, the men get irritated and turn away, and
the women get more critical, and it becomes a circle. But there
isn't any gender difference when it comes to contempt. Not at all."
Contempt is special. If you can measure contempt, then all of a
sudden you don't need to know every detail of the couple's

I think that this is the way that our unconscious works. When we
leap to a decision or have a hunch, our unconscious is doing what
John Gottman does. It's sifting through the situation in front of
us, throwing out all that is irrelevant while we zero in on what
really matters. And the truth is that our unconscious is really
good at this, to the point where thin-slicing often delivers a
better answer than more deliberate and exhaustive ways of

4. The Secrets of the Bedroom

Imagine that you are considering me for a job. You've seen my
résumé and think I have the necessary credentials. But
you want to know whether I am the right fit for your organization.
Am I a hard worker? Am I honest? Am I open to new ideas? In order
to answer those questions about my personality, your boss gives you
two options. The first is to meet with me twice a week for a year
--- to have lunch or dinner or go to a movie with me --- to the
point where you become one of my closest friends. (Your boss is
quite demanding.) The second option is to drop by my house when I'm
not there and spend half an hour or so looking around. Which would
you choose?

The seemingly obvious answer is that you should take the first
option: the thick slice. The more time you spend with me and the
more information you gather, the better off you are. Right? I hope
by now that you are at least a little bit skeptical of that
approach. Sure enough, as the psychologist Samuel Gosling has
shown, judging people's personalities is a really good example of
how surprisingly effective thin-slicing can be.

Gosling began his experiment by doing a personality workup on
eighty college students. For this, he used what is called the Big
Five Inventory, a highly respected, multi-item questionnaire that
measures people across five dimensions:

1. Extraversion. Are you sociable or retiring? Fun-loving or

2. Agreeableness. Are you trusting or suspicious? Helpful or

3. Conscientiousness. Are you organized or disorganized?
Self-disciplined or weak willed?

4. Emotional stability. Are you worried or calm? Insecure or

5. Openness to new experiences. Are you imaginative or
down-to-earth? Independent or conforming?

Then Gosling had close friends of those eighty students fill out
the same questionnaire.

When our friends rank us on the Big Five, Gosling wanted to know,
how closely do they come to the truth? The answer is, not
surprisingly, that our friends can describe us fairly accurately.
They have a thick slice of experience with us, and that translates
to a real sense of who we are. Then Gosling repeated the process,
but this time he didn't call on close friends. He used total
strangers who had never even met the students they were judging.
All they saw were their dorm rooms. He gave his raters clipboards
and told them they had fifteen minutes to look around and answer a
series of very basic questions about the occupant of the room: On a
scale of 1 to 5, does the inhabitant of this room seem to be the
kind of person who is talkative? Tends to find fault with others?
Does a thorough job? Is original? Is reserved? Is helpful and
unselfish with others? And so on. "I was trying to study everyday
impressions," Gosling says. "So I was quite careful not to tell my
subjects what to do. I just said, 'Here is your questionnaire. Go
into the room and drink it in.' I was just trying to look at
intuitive judgment processes."

How did they do? The dorm room observers weren't nearly as good as
friends in measuring extraversion. If you want to know how animated
and talkative and outgoing someone is, clearly, you have to meet
him or her in person. The friends also did slightly better than the
dorm room visitors at accurately estimating agreeableness --- how
helpful and trusting someone is. I think that also makes sense. But
on the remaining three traits of the Big Five, the strangers with
the clipboards came out on top. They were more accurate at
measuring conscientiousness, and they were much more accurate at
predicting both the students' emotional stability and their
openness to new experiences. On balance, then, the strangers ended
up doing a much better job. What this suggests is that it is quite
possible for people who have never met us and who have spent only
twenty minutes thinking about us to come to a better understanding
of who we are than people who have known us for years. Forget the
endless "getting to know" meetings and lunches, then. If you want
to get a good idea of whether I'd make a good employee, drop by my
house one day and take a look around.

If you are like most people, I imagine that you find Gosling's
conclusions quite incredible. But the truth is that they shouldn't
be, not after the lessons of John Gottman. This is just another
example of thin-slicing. The observers were looking at the
students' most personal belongings, and our personal belongings
contain a wealth of very telling information. Gosling says, for
example, that a person's bedroom gives three kinds of clues to his
or her personality. There are, first of all, identity claims, which
are deliberate expressions about how we would like to be seen by
the world: a framed copy of a magna cum laude degree from Harvard,
for example. Then there is behavioral residue, which is defined as
the inadvertent clues we leave behind: dirty laundry on the floor,
for instance, or an alphabetized CD collection. Finally, there are
thoughts and feelings regulators, which are changes we make to our
most personal spaces to affect the way we feel when we inhabit
them: a scented candle in the corner, for example, or a pile of
artfully placed decorative pillows on the bed. If you see
alphabetized CDs, a Harvard diploma on the wall, incense on a side
table, and laundry neatly stacked in a hamper, you know
certain aspects about that individual's personality instantly, in a
way that you may not be able to grasp if all you ever do is spend
time with him or her directly. Anyone who has ever scanned the
bookshelves of a new girlfriend or boyfriend --- or peeked inside
his or her medicine cabinet --- understands this implicitly: you
can learn as much --- or more --- from one glance at a private
space as you can from hours of exposure to a public face.

Just as important, though, is the information you don't have
when you look through someone's belongings. What you avoid when you
don't meet someone face-to-face are all the confusing and
complicated and ultimately irrelevant pieces of information that
can serve to screw up your judgment. Most of us have difficulty
believing that a 275-pound football lineman could have a lively and
discerning intellect. We just can't get past the stereotype of the
dumb jock. But if all we saw of that person was his bookshelf or
the art on his walls, we wouldn't have that same problem.

What people say about themselves can also be very confusing, for
the simple reason that most of us aren't very objective about
ourselves. That's why, when we measure personality, we don't just
ask people point-blank what they think they are like. We give them
a questionnaire, like the Big Five Inventory, carefully designed to
elicit telling responses. That's also why Gottman doesn't waste any
time asking husbands and wives point-blank questions about the
state of their marriage. They might lie or feel awkward or, more
important, they might not know the truth. They may be so
deeply mired --- or so happily ensconced --- in their relationship
that they have no perspective on how it works. "Couples simply
aren't aware of how they sound," says Sybil Carrère. "They
have this discussion, which we videotape and then play back to
them. In one of the studies we did recently, we interviewed couples
about what they learned from the study, and a remarkable number of
them --- I would say a majority of them --- said they were
surprised to find either what they looked like during the conflict
discussion or what they communicated during the conflict
discussion. We had one woman whom we thought of as extremely
emotional, but she said that she had no idea that she was so
emotional. She said that she thought she was stoic and gave nothing
away. A lot of people are like that. They think they are more
forthcoming than they actually are, or more negative than they
actually are. It was only when they were watching the tape that
they realized they were wrong about what they were

If couples aren't aware of how they sound, how much value can there
be in asking them direct questions? Not much, and this is why
Gottman has couples talk about something involving their marriage
--- like their pets --- without being about their marriage.
He looks closely at indirect measures of how the couple is doing:
the telling traces of emotion that flit across one person's face;
the hint of stress picked up in the sweat glands of the palm; a
sudden surge in heart rate; a subtle tone that creeps into an
exchange. Gottman comes at the issue sideways, which, he has found,
can be a lot quicker and a more efficient path to the truth than
coming at it head-on.

What those observers of dorm rooms were doing was simply a
layperson's version of John Gottman's analysis. They were looking
for the "fist" of those college students. They gave themselves
fifteen minutes to drink things in and get a hunch about the
person. They came at the question sideways, using the indirect
evidence of the students' dorm rooms, and their decision-making
process was simplified: they weren't distracted at all by the kind
of confusing, irrelevant information that comes from a face-to-face
encounter. They thin-sliced. And what happened? The same thing that
happened with Gottman: those people with the clipboards were
really good at making predictions.

5. Listening to Doctors

Let's take the concept of thin-slicing one step further. Imagine
you work for an insurance company that sells doctors medical
malpractice protection. Your boss asks you to figure out for
accounting reasons who, among all the physicians covered by the
company, is most likely to be sued. Once again, you are given two
choices. The first is to examine the physicians' training and
credentials and then analyze their records to see how many errors
they've made over the past few years. The other option is to listen
in on very brief snippets of conversation between each doctor and
his or her patients.

By now you are expecting me to say the second option is the best
one. You're right, and here's why. Believe it or not, the risk of
being sued for malpractice has very little to do with how many
mistakes a doctor makes. Analyses of malpractice lawsuits show that
there are highly skilled doctors who get sued a lot and doctors who
make lots of mistakes and never get sued. At the same time, the
overwhelming number of people who suffer an injury due to the
negligence of a doctor never file a malpractice suit at all. In
other words, patients don't file lawsuits because they've been
harmed by shoddy medical care. Patients file lawsuits because
they've been harmed by shoddy medical care and something
happens to them.

What is that something else? It's how they were treated, on a
personal level, by their doctor. What comes up again and again in
malpractice cases is that patients say they were rushed or ignored
or treated poorly. "People just don't sue doctors they like," is
how Alice Burkin, a leading medical malpractice lawyer, puts it.
"In all the years I've been in this business, I've never had a
potential client walk in and say, 'I really like this doctor, and I
feel terrible about doing it, but I want to sue him.' We've had
people come in saying they want to sue some specialist, and we'll
say, 'We don't think that doctor was negligent. We think it's your
primary care doctor who was at fault.' And the client will say, 'I
don't care what she did. I love her, and I'm not suing her.'"

Burkin once had a client who had a breast tumor that wasn't spotted
until it had metastasized, and she wanted to sue her internist for
the delayed diagnosis. In fact, it was her radiologist who was
potentially at fault. But the client was adamant. She wanted to sue
the internist. "In our first meeting, she told me she hated this
doctor because she never took the time to talk to her and never
asked about her other symptoms," Burkin said. "'She never looked at
me as a whole person,' the patient told us. . . . When a patient
has a bad medical result, the doctor has to take the time to
explain what happened, and to answer the patient's questions --- to
treat him like a human being. The doctors who don't are the ones
who get sued." It isn't necessary, then, to know much about how a
surgeon operates in order to know his likelihood of being sued.
What you need to understand is the relationship between that doctor
and his patients.

Recently the medical researcher Wendy Levinson recorded hundreds of
conversations between a group of physicians and their patients.
Roughly half of the doctors had never been sued. The other half had
been sued at least twice, and Levinson found that just on the basis
of those conversations, she could find clear differences between
the two groups. The surgeons who had never been sued spent more
than three minutes longer with each patient than those who had been
sued did (18.3 minutes versus 15 minutes). They were more likely to
make "orienting" comments, such as "First I'll examine you, and
then we will talk the problem over" or "I will leave time for your
questions" --- which help patients get a sense of what the visit is
supposed to accomplish and when they ought to ask questions. They
were more likely to engage in active listening, saying such things
as "Go on, tell me more about that," and they were far more likely
to laugh and be funny during the visit. Interestingly, there was no
difference in the amount or quality of information they gave their
patients; they didn't provide more details about medication or the
patient's condition. The difference was entirely in how they
talked to their patients.

It's possible, in fact, to take this analysis even further. The
psychologist Nalini Ambady listened to Levinson's tapes, zeroing in
on the conversations that had been recorded between just surgeons
and their patients. For each surgeon, she picked two patient
conversations. Then, from each conversation, she selected two
ten-second clips of the doctor talking, so her slice was a total of
forty seconds. Finally, she "content-filtered" the slices, which
means she removed the high-frequency sounds from speech that enable
us to recognize individual words. What's left after
content-filtering is a kind of garble that preserves intonation,
pitch, and rhythm but erases content. Using that slice --- and that
slice alone --- Ambady did a Gottman-style analysis. She had judges
rate the slices of garble for such qualities as warmth, hostility,
dominance, and anxiousness, and she found that by using only those
ratings, she could predict which surgeons got sued and which ones

Ambady says that she and her colleagues were "totally stunned by
the results," and it's not hard to understand why. The judges knew
nothing about the skill level of the surgeons. They didn't know how
experienced they were, what kind of training they had, or what kind
of procedures they tended to do. They didn't even know what
the doctors were saying to their patients. All they were using for
their prediction was their analysis of the surgeon's tone of voice.
In fact, it was even more basic than that: if the surgeon's voice
was judged to sound dominant, the surgeon tended to be in the sued
group. If the voice sounded less dominant and more concerned, the
surgeon tended to be in the non-sued group. Could there be a
thinner slice? Malpractice sounds like one of those infinitely
complicated and multidimensional problems. But in the end it comes
down to a matter of respect, and the simplest way that respect is
communicated is through tone of voice, and the most corrosive tone
of voice that a doctor can assume is a dominant tone. Did Ambady
need to sample the entire history of a patient and doctor to pick
up on that tone? No, because a medical consultation is a lot like
one of Gottman's conflict discussions or a student's dorm room.
It's one of those situations where the signature comes through loud
and clear.

Next time you meet a doctor, and you sit down in his office and he
starts to talk, if you have the sense that he isn't listening to
you, that he's talking down to you, and that he isn't treating you
with respect, listen to that feeling. You have thin-sliced
him and found him wanting.

6. The Power of the Glance

Thin-slicing is not an exotic gift. It is a central part of what it
means to be human. We thin-slice whenever we meet a new person or
have to make sense of something quickly or encounter a novel
situation. We thin-slice because we have to, and we come to rely on
that ability because there are lots of hidden fists out there, lots
of situations where careful attention to the details of a very thin
slice, even for no more than a second or two, can tell us an awful

It is striking, for instance, how many different professions and
disciplines have a word to describe the particular gift of reading
deeply into the narrowest slivers of experience. In basketball, the
player who can take in and comprehend all that is happening around
him or her is said to have "court sense." In the military,
brilliant generals are said to possess "coup d'oeil" --- which,
translated from the French, means "power of the glance": the
ability to immediately see and make sense of the battlefield.
Napoleon had coup d'oeil. So did Patton. The ornithologist David
Sibley says that in Cape May, New Jersey, he once spotted a bird in
flight from two hundred yards away and knew, instantly, that it was
a ruff, a rare sandpiper. He had never seen a ruff in flight
before; nor was the moment long enough for him to make a careful
identification. But he was able to capture what bird-watchers call
the bird's "giss" --- its essence --- and that was enough.

"Most of bird identification is based on a sort of subjective
impression --- the way a bird moves and little instantaneous
appearances at different angles and sequences of different
appearances, and as it turns its head and as it flies and as it
turns around, you see sequences of different shapes and angles,"
Sibley says. "All that combines to create a unique impression of a
bird that can't really be taken apart and described in words. When
it comes down to being in the field and looking at a bird, you
don't take the time to analyze it and say it shows this, this, and
this; therefore it must be this species. It's more natural and
instinctive. After a lot of practice, you look at the bird, and it
triggers little switches in your brain. It looks right. You
know what it is at a glance."

The Hollywood producer Brian Grazer, who has produced many of the
biggest hit movies of the past twenty years, uses almost exactly
the same language to describe the first time he met the actor Tom
Hanks. It was in 1983. Hanks was then a virtual unknown. All he had
done was the now (justly) forgotten TV show called Bosom
"He came in and read for the movie Splash, and
right there, in the moment, I can tell you just what I saw," Grazer
says. In that first instant, he knew Hanks was special. "We
read hundreds of people for that part, and other people were
funnier than him. But they weren't as likable as him. I felt like I
could live inside of him. I felt like his problems were problems I
could relate to. You know, in order to make somebody laugh, you
have to be interesting, and in order to be interesting, you have to
do things that are mean. Comedy comes out of anger, and interesting
comes out of angry; otherwise there is no conflict. But he was able
to be mean and you forgave him, and you have to be able to forgive
somebody, because at the end of the day, you still have to be with
him, even after he's dumped the girl or made some choices that you
don't agree with. All of this wasn't thought out in words at the
time. It was an intuitive conclusion that only later I could

My guess is that many of you have the same impression of Tom Hanks.
If I asked you what he was like, you would say that he is decent
and trustworthy and down-to-earth and funny. But you don't know
him. You're not friends with him. You've only seen him in the
movies, playing a wide range of different characters. Nonetheless,
you've managed to extract something very meaningful about him from
those thin slices of experience, and that impression has a powerful
effect on how you experience Tom Hanks's movies. "Everybody said
that they couldn't see Tom Hanks as an astronaut," Grazer says of
his decision to cast Hanks in the hit movie Apollo 13.
"Well, I didn't know whether Tom Hanks was an astronaut. But I saw
this as a movie about a spacecraft in jeopardy. And who does the
world want to get back the most? Who does America want to save? Tom
Hanks. We don't want to see him die. We like him too much."

If we couldn't thin-slice --- if you really had to know someone for
months and months to get at their true selves --- then Apollo
would be robbed of its drama and Splash would not be
funny. And if we could not make sense of complicated situations in
a flash, basketball would be chaotic, and bird-watchers would be
helpless. Not long ago, a group of psychologists reworked the
divorce prediction test that I found so overwhelming. They took a
number of Gottman's couples videos and showed them to nonexperts
--- only this time, they provided the raters with a little help.
They gave them a list of emotions to look for. They broke the tapes
into thirty-second segments and allowed everyone to look at each
segment twice, once to focus on the man and once to focus on the
woman. And what happened? This time around, the observers' ratings
predicted with better than 80 percent accuracy which marriages were
going to make it. That's not quite as good as Gottman. But it's
pretty impressive --- and that shouldn't come as a surprise. We're
old hands at thin-slicing.

Excerpted from BLINK © Copyright 2005 by Malcolm Gladwell.
Reprinted with permission by Little, Brown and Company, an imprint
of Time Warner Bookmark. All rights reserved.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
by by Malcolm Gladwell