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What is Thin-Slicing?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term thin-slicing means making very quick decisions with small amounts of information. The term is most often used in the discussion of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 non-fiction book Blink, which analyzes the concept of “thinking without thinking.”

Gladwell posits that thin-slicing can have its uses or can be a mistake. If one takes a small amount of information to generalize or make decisions in whole then decisions may be made that really are incorrect. However, sometimes a small amount of relevant information is all that is required to make decisions and act.

One example of thin-slicing is the Dr. Phil television program. When the program began, people praised Dr. Phil’s ability to cut through the “bull” and get people straight to their major issues. However, many therapists believe that some of Dr. Phil's thin-slicing is detrimental to therapy in general. They argue that therapy takes more than a one hour appearance on a television show to really help people change destructive behavior.

To his credit, Dr. Phil tends to research his guests fairly thoroughly, and what the audience sees is a thin-slicing of the total information the therapist has at his disposal. Additionally, more and more Dr. Phil may confront to get to truths, but then works with families or individuals to get them regular therapy after a show.

In a sense, thin-slicing could also refer to the emotional reaction of a person to partial amounts of data. For example, a person finds his child is late from school. Without waiting for an explanation, the brain immediately shifts to the emotion anger. The parent generalizes from past experiences and decides the child is to blame, prior to evidence in this particular case is presented.

In some ways, thin-slicing can be helpful, and is somewhat representative of the idea of cutting straight through the Gordian knot instead of carefully untying it. For example, young children can be particularly verbose in their explanations of why something occurred. Parents can help them by active listening and thin-slicing through excess information. “Ah I see, John kicked you, which made you really angry. That’s why you threw the eraser.” This helps the child learn to organize thoughts more carefully and become better communicators.

Also, one can look at a few representative samples and use thin-slicing to extrapolate and make good decisions. For example, a drug company does huge amount of tests that show that 50% of people taking an experimental drug have extremely adverse reactions to it. It is not necessary to read all the data to form a decision about whether to approve the drug. Instead the FDA can use thin-slicing to say, “Half the people reacted badly to this drug. It is dangerous, and therefore we should not approve it.”

However, the danger of thin-slicing is to neglect important or relevant pieces of information. If half the people who took the experimental drug actually were cured of a fatal illness, this data must be considered. A decision to approve the drug in this case should not be a result of thin-slicing, but a careful analysis of all relevant data.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon357674 — On Dec 05, 2013

I must disagree with the above analysis. Gladwell's focus in on split second decision-making process that bypasses much of your cognitive thought structure. It was very adaptive in the days where you had to decide to run or fight when faced with a lion, and in fact it still works out well for many things even in modern times (ex. moving out of the way from the path of a speeding car).

However, to extrapolate that to decisions where you have several seconds or minutes to engage your critical thinking process is an unwarranted stretch of otherwise well supported neuropsychological science.

By BabaB — On May 23, 2011

Making quick decisions in the first few moments of an encounter with someone really can't be relied upon to be a good decision.

Many medical doctors tell this story. Someone comes in to see them for the first time. Their blood pressure is taken and is high. Then a little later in the appointment, a second blood pressure reading is taken and - surprise - it is normal. People tend to be nervous in the beginning of a new situation.

When an interview is given for a job, the interviewee may come off as an awkward person and be judged not suitable for the job. If he were evaluated after a full interview, he may get the job.

Far too often, people are judged right after we meet them. In many situations, we need more information.

By live2shop — On May 23, 2011

Active listening is a great way to avoid having to listen to a child's excess chatter. It really helps to teach a child or teenager how to communicate. The idea is to condense and feed back the important information.

It is also useful to use when trying to express feelings. "I hate my teacher.", "You are saying that your teacher did something to make you mad?"

When disciplining children, it's wise to thin-slice the lecture. They aren't good listeners when being disciplined. Just "cut to the chase" and tell them what you expect them to do.

By anon111274 — On Sep 15, 2010

I agree. Thin-Slicing can be beneficial or detrimental to all situations depending on the situation and how its applied. There's two sides to every story, and then there's a third which is the truth.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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