Malcolm Gladwell
Contributed by Shemika Thormahlen
Chapter 1

Some years ago, a couple visited a psychologist called John Gottman. Gladwell calls this couple “Susan and Bill”. The psychologist videotaped Susan and Bill conversing. During the taping, Susan and Bill were connected to machines which measured their heart rate and perspiration levels. For about fifteen minutes, the couple talked about their dogs. Bill appeared not to like dogs and he bantered playfully with Susan about their dogs’ oily coat; furthermore, their conversation seemed ordinary. According to the author, one may assume that Susan and Bill’s conversation did not really tell the psychologist anything about them. But, as a matter of fact, their conversation revealed a lot.

Gottman interviewed Susan and Bill, together with other couples, in a research aimed at studying how couples interrelate. He believed that by measuring heart rate and perspiration, as well as studying the facial expressions of these couples, he could understand and measure brief moments of conflict between people. The study yielded surprising results: by just analyzing 15 minutes of a couple’s conversation, Gottman would be able to predict, with around an accuracy rate of 90%, whether this couple would still be together after fifteen years.

The psychologist’s study is a perfect example of what Gladwell calls “thin-slicing”, or the use of the adaptive unconscious in drawing conclusions from little information. The psychologist took a long time to draw inferences from his research; nevertheless, his conclusions were impressive (concerning the fate of marriages) from small shreds of evidence (i.e. fifteen minutes of a couple’s conversation). The important premise of the research is that married people argue with each other in subtle, nearly-subliminal ways. For instance, when Susan and Bill talked about their dog, Bill used the “yes, but” strategy of conversing. In simple words, Bill seemed to agree with his wife, but then immediately contracted her. People show contempt for one another in many different ways — for instance, by rolling their eyes. When Susan and Bill talked about the dog, Susan kept rolling her eyes. The couple also displayed many signs of having marital tension. For instance, when Bill asks to be given credit for an idea, Susan refuses to give it to him. In addition, Susan did not give her husband positive reinforcement (e.g. nodding, smiling, etc.) when he spoke about caring for their dog. Susan and Bill’s conversation, despite appearing normal to untrained observers, revealed many signs of marital tension, indicating that the couple would eventually divorce.

Gottman’s research crux is that married people communicate with each other through subtle patterns and signals, like facial cues, reinforcement techniques, and response times. A perfect analogy for the psychologist’s point is found in the history of coded messages. During the Second World War, intelligence officers from Britain realized that they could determine the traits of German broadcasters. Even though the German broadcasters used to communicate using complex coded messages, their communication had distinctive rhythms. It was clearly possible for intelligence officers to determine the personalities of the Germans sending the codes, based on the broadcast’s rhythm. Some spies later became so accustomed to these rhythms that they were able to identify the German broadcaster after just a few seconds of eavesdropping. In addition, because spies easily identified the broadcasters, they could tell from which place in Europe the messages were sent, and thus where the enemy army was going next.

Therefore, the study indicates that married people communicate distinctively, an interaction pattern that reveals itself in just a few minutes. Interestingly, certain traits are healthy and positive, while others are not. The psychologist became adept at evaluating communicative traits to the extent that he could easily graph any couple’s negative and positive feelings from time-to-time. He became skillful at thin-slicing dialogue between people by concentrating on important aspects of interaction. Gottman pinpoints four possible problems in conversations: stonewalling, defensiveness, contempt, and criticism. By far, contempt is the best predictor that tells whether a couple is happy with one another. He terms contempt as “criticism delivered from situations in which a person thinks they are superior to others”. The author suggests that the adaptive unconscious can make similar kinds of rapid assessments that the psychologist trained himself to do, assessing a thin slice of a small amount of evidence and deducing something from it.

During interviews, the interviewers try to draw as much info as they can from the interviewee. An individual might assume that, ideally, the interviewers must spend a lot of time with the interviewees, so to gather a large pool of evidence. However, as it happens, some research done by psychologists indicate that interviewers can often tell a lot about the interviewees in a very short time. Another psychologist conducted a study where he assessed the personalities of eighty students, assessing their emotional stability, extraversion, agreeableness, among others. Subsequently, the psychologist asked the friends of these students to evaluate them using similar criteria. Finally, strangers were asked to guess the personalities of these students, strictly on the basis of their dorm rooms. To much surprise, the strangers were slightly better at assessing the personalities of the students than their close friends. The strangers engaged in thin-slicing when they assessed the living spaces of the students, as they were able to make judgements about the students’ personalities based on little evidence (e.g. the dorm rooms). How thin-slicing manages to bypass all stereotypes makes it very effective. For instance, it may be unlikely to believe that a certain muscular soccer or football player is also highly intelligent; the stereotypes about football players and athletes, in general, prevents an honest analysis of the mind of the player. However, if a person was to visit the player’s room and finds a large collection of books, he or she may assess the player’s information quotient more accurately.

It is crucial to understand that thin-slicing is not an unusual gift; every human can thin-slice to a certain degree. Recently, different psychologists presented the videotapes recorded by Gottman to normal people. These psychologists gave these people simple instructions about the way to interpret all the conversations and allowed them to watch every video twice. It was found that laypeople were able to predict the success of marriages with an accuracy rating of 80% (Gladwell 48).  


This chapter starts with a perfectly ordinary conversation between a couple who seem happy. However, the author later shows that it is possible to assess the conversation between the couple so meticulously that experts can predict whether the two would still be married after fifteen years. Thin-slicing, or the adaptive unconscious, allows humans to understand the world and is one of the dominant themes in the book. In essence, the thin-slicing concept implies that instinct is empirical, even though snap judgments do not consider all the evidence, they do require some evidence, a thin-slice at least (for instance, Gottman’s fifteen-minutes observation). Gottman proposes that the manner in which married people converse indicates how they think about one another, as well as how they get along. Therefore, it is possible for trained experts like him to draw conclusions about a couple after observing their interactions for a short time. Interestingly, according to Gottman, nearly everyone can make these guesses, even though untrained individuals would not be as insightful as him.

The author transitions from discussing Gottman’s research to the Second World War. He asserts that any code, whether Morse Code or even a couple’s speech pattern, can be identified quickly, even if it cannot be cracked. In the author’s terminology, it is possible to thin-slice codes very quickly, where people can identify the patterns or traits with which codes are being broadcast. Gottman is skilled at thin-slicing the interactions of couples because he picks up on some traits and patterns of conversations after just a few minutes — an example of adaptive unconscious or thin-slicing power.

It seems unbelievable that total strangers can be shrewder about the personalities of people than their best friends. However, perchance this does make sense: an individual’s closest friends can be biased, because they have confounding information concerning the individuals; total strangers, on the other hand, can be impartial in their evaluations.

In the book, the author presents the paradoxical thought that thin-slicing can actually balance stereotyping. One may believe that thin-slicing or the adaptive unconscious is customized for stereotyping since it includes “passing judgment superficially”. But, truth be told, Gladwell contends it can be more objective and reasonable than rational evaluations, since it diminishes the number of chances for simple stereotyping.

This precedent underscores the point Gladwell has officially made: in some cases, modest, apparently-unimportant snippets of information tell more than piles of carefully-assessed evidence.

This section raises a point to which the author will return in a later section: proficient individuals are considered "specialists" to some extent, in view of their capacity to make shrewd snap decisions — for instance, to pass judgment on which individuals could and could not be important people in only a couple of minutes.

The part finishes with a critical illumination. Up until now, Gladwell has been discussing specialists, insiders, and researchers. However, he postulates that thin-slicing is not only for prodigies and specialists; in fact, any individual has the ability to thin-slice. Clearly, people may not be as great at assessing the connections of couples as Gottman. But anyone can thin-slice if  they consistently use it in their daily activities and communications.

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