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Thin-slicing is a term used in psychology and philosophy to describe the ability to find patterns in events based only on "thin slices," or narrow windows, of experience.[1] The term seems to have been coined in 1992 by Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal in a paper in the Psychological Bulletin.[2]

History and overview[edit]

Many studies have shown that brief observations can be used to assess outcomes, at levels higher than expected by chance. Once comparing these observations of less than five minutes to greater than five minutes, the data showed no significant change, thus implying that observations made within the first few minutes were unchanging.

One of the first series conducted by James Bugental and his colleagues showed that parents' expectancies, identified from brief clips of their tone, are related to their children's behavior process. The tone of a mother with a normal child and one whose child has behavioral problems differed significantly. These conceptions provide an underlying basis that there actually is an ability to judge from brief observations. Research in classrooms has shown that judges can distinguish biased teachers from unbiased teachers along with "differential teacher expectancies" simply from brief clips of teachers' behaviors. Likewise, research in the courtroom has shown that in brief excerpts of judges' instructions to jurors in trials, raters could predict the judge's expectations for the trial.[3]

The term thin-slicing means making very quick decisions with minimal amounts of information. Thinking has always been described as a conscious effort. Artist Henri Cartier-Bresson called thinking a "decisive moment" of consciousness, but in reality thin-slicing is an unconscious behavior. Similarly, photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt referred to a direct connection between his eye and his shutter finger, bypassing his brain, which was critical for many of his most celebrated images. Thin-slicing also produces distinct biological and sociocultural effects. In one of Nalini Ambady's experiments, she reminded the female Asian students about their gender or their ethnicity before they took a math test. There are many prevailing social stereotypes that suggest women are not good at math and Asians are good at math. Her study showed that subtly cueing students' gender or ethnic identities affects their performance. The individuals whose ethnicity was cued scored higher than the control group, who in turn scored higher than the students whose gender was cued.[4] See also Priming, First impression and Stereotype Threat.


One of the most popular books on thin-slicing is Blink written by Malcolm Gladwell. In this book, the author goes through and describes interesting examples and research which exploit the idea of thin-slicing.

  • Gladwell describes how a museum acquired an ancient sculpture, brought to the J. Paul Getty Museum in California, under the name Getty kouros. Some art experts observed the sculpture and decided there was something wrong with it, a gut feeling due to the artwork exhibiting all the wrong signs. However, under thorough investigation the sculpture was deemed real because of a lack of solid evidence to the contrary. The statue's authenticity was later thrown into question due to erroneous assumptions made by one of the researchers who had previously vouched for it.
  • Another example is explained through relationships. John Gottman, a well-known marital expert, describes how within an hour of observing a couple, he can gather with 95% accuracy if the couple will be together within 15 years. His accuracy goes down to 90% if he observes the couples for 15 minutes, supporting the phenomenon of thin-slicing.


Drs. Albrechsten, Meissner and Susa of the University of Texas at El Paso conducted two separate studies of processing style (intuitive vs. deliberative processing) in a deception detection task. In the first experiment, a thin-slicing manipulation was used to show that intuitive processing can lead to more accurate judgments of deception when compared with traditional forms of processing. In the second experiment, participants who engaged in a second task performed more accurately in a deception task than participants who were asked to provide a verbal rationale for each decision. The results converged suggest that intuitive processing can significantly improve deception detection performances. [5]


An individual's mood has been known to distort cognitive abilities. Emotions cloud rational quick thoughts. The three most influential studies were conducted by Nalini Ambady at the Harvard University, Department of Psychology. In the first study, induced sadness led to reduced accuracy in judgments of teacher effectiveness from brief samples of nonverbal behavior. In the second study, sad participants showed reduced accuracy in judging relationship type from thin-slices as well as diminished judgmental efficiency. Study three showed the possibility that sadness impairs accuracy by promoting a more deliberative information-processing style. All of these studies have the basic principle that emotions do in fact affect judgement as seen through effects on thin-slicing. [6]

Examples in everyday life[edit]

Some people believe that the effects of the phenomenon known as déjà vu happen within the same time frame of thin-slicing and might also have a direct correlation.

Many other uses of thin-slicing are implied by media reports such as firemen making split-second decisions, or cops knowing something is wrong by simply a gut feeling. All these suggest anecdotally that thin-slicing occurs regularly.


  1. ^ Gladwell, Malcolm (2007). Blink. Back Bay Books, Little, Brown and Company, first published 2005, p. 23.
  2. ^ Ambady, Nalini; Rosenthal, Robert (March 1992). "Thin slices of expressive behavior as predictors of interpersonal consequences: A meta-analysis". Psychological Bulletin 111 (2): 256–274. 
  3. ^ Albrechtsen, J.S., Meissner, C.A., & Susa, K.J. (2009). Can intuition improve deception detection performance? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(4), 1052–1055. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2009.05.017
  4. ^ Ambady, N., Bernieri, F.J., & Richeson, J.A. (2000). Toward a histology of social behavior: Judgmental accuracy from thin slices of the behavioral stream Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, (Vol. 32, pp. 201–271).
  5. ^ Meissner, Christian; Justin S. Albrechtsen; Kyle J. Susa (2009). "Can intuition improve deception detection performance?". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (45): 1052–1055. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2009.05.017. 
  6. ^ In a 2002 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 83, No. 4), Ambady found that people who were induced into a happy mood by watching a scene from a happy movie were able to more accurately predict a teacher's effectiveness from a thin-slice video clip than were people who were induced into a sad mood. retrieved on Aug 30, 2014 from