A big inspiration for Split Second: Indian Paintings was the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. Blink introduced the general public to the idea of “thin-slicing,” the notion that “decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.” This idea has been widely studied and applied, in tasks as banal as deciding who to “friend” on Facebook, or as serious as recognizing potential terrorists at airports.
In this, the first in a series of posts about the Split Second experiment and our findings, I’m going to describe the first part of the experiment, and then say something about what some of the results might tell us about thin-slicing.
In the first part of the experiment, participants were presented with a series of pairs of Indian paintings, making snap decisions about which of each pair they liked best. We called this the “Split Second” task. Decisions made during the Split Second task were “thin” in two ways: First, each decision had a time limit of 4 seconds. Second, participants had no extra information about the painting, and had to “go from their gut.” The results from the Split Second task told us which paintings did better in thin-sliced conditions.
But looking at thin-slicing alone wasn’t quite enough for us. In order to really learn about how thin-slicing works, we needed to compare thin-sliced decisions to other kinds of decisions. To do this, we split off a number of participants into a “control group.” Rather than completing the second section of the experiment like the rest of the participants, the control group completed a neutral, unlimited time task with which we could compare all of the other tasks (like the Split Second task). The control group was presented with a series of individual paintings, with no additional information, and given unlimited time to rank each painting on a linear scale from “Meh…” to “Amazing!”
The result of each of these tasks came in the form of a ranking. The first ranking was based on thin-sliced decisions, and the second was based on decisions made with unlimited time. When we analyzed the two rankings, this is what we found:
These results paint a complicated picture of thin-slicing. I think one of the big issues with Gladwell’s Blink is that it doesn’t really give a good idea of when thin-slicing makes sense and when it doesn’t. Thin-slicing is clearly a powerful, effective tool, but it privileges certain qualities over others. Hopefully, by studying these qualities, we can help figure out in what circumstances thin-slicing works best, and when thicker slices might do a better job.
The results summarized above suggest thin-slicing privileges images which are vibrant and clear. On a computer monitor, a large frame means a smaller central image, and high complexity makes paintings harder to understand quickly—but it seems wrong to suggest that the complexity or frame style of King Solomon and His Court are flaws which should cause its ranking to drop. Indeed, when participants were able to take their time, it rose to the top of the list. This suggests that, despite its overall effectiveness, thin-slicing doesn’t reliably engage with complexity, and this can cause us to overlook some gems.
Beau Sievers is a composer and music cognition researcher. He has a blog. Growing up in the Bay Area, he's been bossing computers around (and vice versa) since the 3rd grade. He is currently working on his PhD at the University of Virginia.