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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.