With only 15 minutes of observation John Gottman, a psychologist has been successfully able to predict if the couple will be together in 15 years with a 90 percent accuracy.

When such stories are heard people assume that the success of decisions taken by instinct and intuition is co-incidence. However, there is a lot more to it in reality. Malcolm Gladwell explains this in detail in his book “Blink — The Power of thinking without thinking”

In reality quick decisions provide great results in certain situations and it also causes us to falter in certain others.

The crucial part of getting the right results from your gut feeling is knowing when it could be right and when it could be fallible.

This article aims to cover the following

  • The misconception that decisions made instantaneously are bad. Some of these decisions can be just as good as rational decisions made with deliberate and careful thought.
  • The know-how behind when to trust your instinct and when to think again.
  • Using “thin slicing” for quick decisions. It takes some practice.

By reading these above bullets you might get an impression that you must act on your gut feel to get things right. Before you jump to any conclusion you have to realize that this is a skill that needs practice.

Moreover not every decision can be made by your gut feel.

For example, if you have to decide which stock you should invest your money on, the decision does require careful thought based on how well versed you are in the stock market.

On the other hand, we have all come across the situation where we decide to buy an item online, we look at the first option, then spend hours to research alternatives only to finally zero down on the first choice itself. The key is to strike a balance between such decision making.

On a daily basis, we are presented with way too much information. It is necessary for some scenarios, whereas for most others it is just an overload which does not help the final decision.

To solve this problem, one must develop the ability to what Gladwell calls ‘thin slicing’Thin-slicing is a neat cognitive trick that involves taking a narrow slice of data, just what you can capture in the blink of an eye, and letting your intuition do the work for you.

In his book, Gladwell starts with a story where an art dealer offers a museum a 2500-year-old statue for 10 million. The museum calls for an extensive analysis where a piece of the statue is examined under X-ray diffraction and fluorescence. They find the statue to be made of Dolomite from the ancient quarry along with a layer of calcite(dolomite turns into calcite over a period of hundreds of years). Overall the statue seems perfectly genuine as per analysis.

When the statue is kept for display, art experts intuitively feel that there is something wrong about the statue and ask the museum to check for the authenticity.

One expert felt something wrong looking at the fingernails of the sculpture while another pointed that any statue coming out of the ground did not look the same.

The statue in question looked as if it was dipped in Cafe latte from Starbucks. When a thorough background check was done, the statue was found to be fake.

Coming back to John Gottman, he then slices the way couples interact. The reason why Gottman with only 15 minutes of observation was able to predict if the couple will be together in 15 years is attributed to same technique.

All Gottman does is slices and identifies the details that matter rather than analyzing every word or emotion from the conversation. Here is a video of Gottman explaining his style of thin slicing.


While it looks like this is an area only for the experts, the good news is that all of us can thin slice. We as human beings have a powerful brain which can make great first impressions and has the ability to read people well right on the first meeting.

In fact, most of us thin slice already. For example, if you google a question, irrespective of the results, you already know which among the sites listed will most likely give you a reliable answer. For a technical question Stackoverflow is chosen, for a medical question you would click on WebMd, for a random question you would opt for Quora, even if they do not show up right on the first place.

If you tell that to someone who does not use internet a lot, it would seem surprising. However, from experience and comparison of results over time, you have learnt to thin slice the results that show up.

This is partially the reason speed dating works along with the other factors such as attraction. The problem is, most people do not try to thin slice. Instead people try to gather more and more information in the wrong direction to make a decision.

Let us take an example right here. Take a look at the 2 images below.

These images give a pretty good insight of the personality of the person who lives in that room. Next time if you have to know more about a person, what do you think is easier? Trying to research about that person, hearing stories from third parties or something more simpler like visiting their house?

To harness the complete potential of thin slicing, it is necessary to understand how it works. It is based on our cognitive senses and it is more of our intuition kicking in rather than anything supernatural. We have a conscious mind which we control and a subconscious mind which works by itself.

What we feel as intuition is a result of quick cognition and rapid information processing that happens subconsciously.

Try not to figure out how this happens because it is impossible to break it down into the steps performed by the subconscious mind. Thin-slicing harnesses this powerful adaptive unconsciousness, allowing us to make smart decisions based on minimal information and quick thinking.

Thin slicing works in most cases where you have cartloads of information to make a decision in your area of expertise. A lot of times your subconscious will do this for you. The key is to do it on areas that you are an expert at.

What is also critical to know is when you should not trust your gut feel.

When delving into areas which you barely have any expertise on, your intuition will most likely give you a half baked answer. This is simply because your brain does not have enough information to process which has been collected based on past experience. It only processes what it has, which may not be sufficient to make the right decision.

Additionally, in such scenarios your emotions such as prejudice, bias and stereotypes influence the decision made, which in most cases causes negative results. When trying to explore thin slicing in unknown areas, approach an expert. His/her words and insights will tell you a lot more than loads of data on the same subject.

Implicit Association Test is a test developed by Harvard to check how susceptible are people to getting influenced by race, gender, religion, color, appearance etc when making a decision.

Bob Golomb is a car salesman who has learnt to eliminate the effect of such bias.

How does one get better at thin slicing?

This skill only improves with the right practice and experience. To start off you must identify your key areas of expertise. The next step would be to understand which of the aspects in your key area make a big difference compared to the others. These will be your thin slices.

When you have to make a decision on your key area the next time, you only consider these thin slices and come to a decision. Keep a note of this decision. Now, also apply rational thought and see if the final decision matches with the one earlier.

When you start off with this practice, you are in the right direction. With time and experience your brain will master this craft of thin slicing on it’s own. The human brain is highly capable of learning from repetition.

In conclusion, Gladwell provides an example of National Symphony Orchestra’s use of blind auditions to eliminate any kind of bias based on gender, race or appearance. When the judges are blind, musicians are only judged based on their music.

Overall, the essence of the thin slicing is to capture all the information and throw away all the unnecessary details, while retaining only salient information required to make the right decision.

Next time you see an expert making quick decisions which seem divine, know that you are already doing that yourself too.


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