In the blink of an eye

There are situations where risk assessments have to be made within seconds.  These include sporting or conflict scenarios where your mind has to process what it can and then make a decision.

U.S gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the team event in Tokyo a couple of weeks ago.  She had experienced the “twisties” – disorientation mid-air – while performing in the vault event. She discussed it with her coaches but immediately knew she had to drop out.  There were a number of factors at play, she said: namely, what was going on in her mind (having to wait five and a half hours to compete didn’t help), avoiding serious physical injury (in 1988 U.S. gymnast Julissa Gomez broke her neck in Tokyo in similar circumstances), and ensuring the U.S got at least a silver.

John Gottman is a psychologist at the University of Washington who has studied thousands of married couples.  He brings them in, sits them on a podium, wires them up with electrodes, and films them having a 15-minute conversation about either an item of contention between them, or describing the first time they met.

Gottman’s team go through the filmed conversation afterwards, analysing the couples’ interactions by logging, second-by-second, one of twenty emotions they are displaying, and then comparing these to their heart rate and temperature collected via the electrodes.

From their analysis of one 15-minute interaction, Gottman’s team can tell with 95% accuracy whether the couple will still be together in five years’ time.  When writer and journalist Malcolm Gladwell tried to analyse one interaction, he found himself overwhelmed by the data: 15 minutes x 60 seconds x 2 people demonstrating one of 20 different emotions, plus temperature and heart data.

Given his research, Gottman himself has learned to focus on just a few signals – a technique known as “thin-slicing” – and can tell within 15 seconds whether a couple will stay together.  The key signal, he says, is contempt – the put-down.

In the above scenario, a rapid assessment is not required, however it illustrates that you may actually need to know very little to understand a complex scenario – you just need to know the key signal, the thin-slice –  and over-analysis can just muddy the waters and perhaps lead to poor or slow decision-making in scenarios where you do need speed.

Data Sources: The Guardian newspaper,,,, Blink – Malcolm Gladwell

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