Date Night: A Thin Slice of Reality

Out on the Town

The speed dating site says their speed dating events are fast, fun, and guaranteed.Speed dating is based on the premise that we can use our immediate intuition to judge a potential mate. In a study of people’s ability to judge romantic interest, Place and colleagues showed participants video clips of speed dates and asked them to determine the interest level of potential partners toward one another.Both male and female observers were able to predict interest level, particularly in males, with as little as ten seconds of video footage. In the movie Date Night, Steve Carell and Tina Fey play the Fosters, a typical middle class couple from New Jersey.  During their weekly “date nights” they enjoy observing people around them and analyzing their relationships. Actually, the Fosters are “thin-slicing”, and there is a fair amount of science behind it.  

What is a Thin Slice?

You may have heard the term thin-slicing if you are familiar with the popular book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. A thin slice is a brief sample of nonverbal behavior taken from the behavioral stream (Ambady & Weisbach, 2010). There is growing evidence that people can accurately predict a wide variety of traits, states and outcomes in others from these snippets of behavior (Ambady & Weisbach, 2010; Gottman & Notarius, 2000; Rule & Ambady, 2008, 2008b, 2010b; Rule, Macrae & Ambady, 2009). Typically, thin slices are approximately 30 seconds in length, but Ambady and colleagues at the Interpersonal Perception and Communication Lab at Tufts University have been able to shave their behavioral samples down to two second intervals and still get good predictions from subjects.


Impression formation studies have consistently shown that subjects are able to accurately predict criterion variables such as trustworthiness (Ozono, et al., 2010), political affiliation (Rule & Ambady, 2010a) sexual orientation (Rule, Ambady,  2008; Rule, Macrae, & Ambady, 2009), leadership skills (Rule & Ambady , 2008b, 2010b), and even business skills (Rule & Ambady, 2008b) from thin slices or even photos (Ambady & Weisbach, 2010).  Remarkably, accurate predictions can be made without prior knowledge of the target or even the context in which the behavior is occurring (Ambady & Weisbach, 2010). In a study by Borkenau and Liebler (1992), naïve “perceivers” were able to predict personality traits from observing subjects enter a room, read a weather report, and exit! Somehow, people “fill in” the missing pieces using social algorithms stored in memory (Damasio, 1996; Hodgkinson, Langan-Fox, & Sdaler-Smith, 2008). This research is zeroing in on the limits and substrates of what we call “intuition”.

The Paradigm:

There are two bodies of research that have guided the study of impression-formation and intuition. In the 1950’s, social/personality psychologist Paul Ekman began studying nonverbal behavior and physiognomy. Using still photographs taken seconds apart, Ekman studied the behavioral sequences exhibited by subjects in a variety of controlled situations. Independent judges rated the photographs on a number of dimensions, and eventually patterns emerged (Ekman, 1965 p. 720). In the 1960’s, Ekman and Friesen (1969) developed a facial coding system from this data. Thin slices of nonverbal behavior were categorized by usage (communicative intent and context), origin (instincts and other universals), and coding (act-meaning correspondences) (Ekman & Friesen, 1969).


Ekman mapped the correspondences between impression formation, judgment, and affect that Damasio later explored through a cognitive neuroscience approach. By studying the skin conductance responses of patients with ventromedial frontal lobe damage and controls during a gambling task (link for simulation), Damasio and colleagues discovered that normal subjects form anticipatory sets from rules implicit in judgment paradigms while VMF subjects do not. Damasio posited that the amygdala assigns an affective valence to punishment and reward stimuli that is coordinated and processed via the frontal lobe during decision making (Damasio, 1996). Because social situations are highly associated with reward and punishment, we are able to rapidly intuit the essential information needed to navigate a social milieu.Today, the relatively new discipline of social neuroscience has combined the two schools of thought.


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