It may only take seven seconds to make a first impression, but you’ve aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover. Is it even possible to make accurate predictions about other people in just a couple seconds? Yes. If you know how to do it.
Have you heard of thin-slicing? It’s the ability to find patterns and make predictions based on “thin slices” of information or observation. There may be thousands of bits of information you could observe in a second or two, so how can you process all that, and hope to find patterns?
You don’t. Nobody’s brain is that good. But, as mathematician John Gottman explained, you don’t pay attention to all the bits. You look for what’s already part of a pattern, and either it’s there or it’s not. Gottman, by the way, found a way to mathematically predict divorces with 95% accuracy after viewing couples for extremely short periods of time. Thin-slicing uses a similar process, except without the math.
I read a blog last summer in which a guy said these “snap judgments” were a terrible thing, except in the case of serial killers and carjackers. He apparently didn’t see the irony: it’s okay to jump to conclusions for some people as long as we don’t do it with everyone. (This, despite the fact that – as we know – categorizing people is something we all do, all the time, naturally.) But his business is business, not psychology, so his ignorance is understandable.
Here’s how we actually do things and why – despite the apparent over-reliance on stereotypes – we tend to be much more accurate than not.
There’s a certain amount of bias in our general perception of others, because the simplest way to evaluate their behavior is based on our own (the Fundamental Attribution Bias). For example, that friend who’s always in a break-up herself sees all your minor relationship disagreements as signs of impending doom. This personal filter is a product of our personality, emotional state at the moment, cultural backgrounds, and even the context of a situation (Isaacowitz & Fung, 2010; Duffy & Kitayama, 2010; Akitsuki & Decety, 2009). With so many variables in play, it might seem unlikely that we’d ever get it right.
But we do. We get near-constant feedback on our perceptions so we can make micro-corrections (Funder, 1987) almost as fast as the visual cortex can process images. Ironically, the Fundamental Attribution Bias is partly responsible for us being able to get it right – it provides us with some social awareness and emotional intelligence. We notice things that might trigger unjustified bias so we can auto-correct on a dime, so to speak.
Humans aren’t the only ones making accurate predictions; lots of animals that exhibit personality traits (cats, dogs, dolphins, primates, and even cephalopods and rays) also make predictions based on observing others of their species.
How hard is it? I need some bread and milk, so come shopping with me. Let’s see if you can spot the woman who’s single and doesn’t want to be. Spend a second looking at purchases. Is it the one with chicken nuggets and cereal with a toy, or the one with veggies, yogurt, and the latest issue of Cosmo? (I’m not telling. You know you got it right.)
Once you know what to look for, thin-slicing comes down to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is able to make crazy-quick yes/no judgments in all kinds of situations, like business, sports, driving, purchases, and gaming. Looking for a particular pattern often as simple as just one or two key indicators (like food purchases). Either they exist or they don’t, yes or no.
Questions? Comments? You know what to do.