The Theory of Thin Slices: How a Little Bit of Knowledge Goes a Long Way
Some years ago, a young couple came to the University of Washington to visit the laboratory of a psychologist named John Gottman. They were in their twenties, blond and blue-eyed with stylishly tousled haircuts and funky glasses. Later, some of the people who worked in the lab would say they were the kind of couple that is easy to likeintelligent and attractive and funny in a droll, ironic kind of wayand that much is immediately obvious from the videotape Gottman made of their visit. The husband, whom Ill call Bill, had an endearingly playful manner. His wife, Susan, had a sharp, deadpan wit.
They were led into a small room on the second floor of the nondescript two-story building that housed Gottmans operations, and they sat down about five feet apart on two office chairs mounted on raised platforms. They both had electrodes and sensors clipped to their fingers and ears, which measured things like their heart rate, how much they were sweating, and the temperature of their skin. Under their chairs, a jiggle-o-meter on the platform measured how much each of them moved around. Two video cameras, one aimed at each person, recorded everything they said and did. For fifteen minutes, they were left alone with the cameras rolling, with instructions to discuss any topic from their marriage that had become a point of contention. For Bill and Sue it was their dog. They lived in a small apartment and had just gotten a very large puppy. Bill didnt like the dog; Sue did. For fifteen minutes, they discussed what they ought to do about it.
The videotape of Bill and Sues discussion seems, at least at first, to be a random sample of a very ordinary kind of conversation that couples have all the time. No one gets angry. There are no scenes, no breakdowns, no epiphanies. Im just not a dog person is how Bill starts things off, in a perfectly reasonable tone of voice. He complains a little bitbut about the dog, not about Susan. She complains, too, but there are also moments when they simply forget that they are supposed to be arguing. When the subject of whether the dog smells comes up, for example, Bill and Sue banter back and forth happily, both with a half smile on their lips.
Sue: Sweetie! Shes not smelly . . .
Bill: Did you smell her today?
Sue: I smelled her. She smelled good. I petted her, and my hands didnt stink or feel oily. Your hands have never smelled oily.
Bill: Yes, sir.
Sue: Ive never let my dog get oily.
Bill: Yes, sir. Shes a dog.
Sue: My dog has never gotten oily. Youd better be careful.
Bill: No, youd better be careful.
Sue: No, youd better be careful. . . . Dont call my dog oily, boy.
1. The Love Lab
How much do you think can be learned about Sue and Bills marriage by watching that fifteen-minute videotape? Can we tell if their relationship is healthy or unhealthy? I suspect that most of us would say that Bill and Sues dog talk doesnt tell us much. Its much too short. Marriages are buffeted by more important things, like money and sex and children and jobs and in-laws, in constantly changing combinations. Sometimes couples are very happy together. Some days they fight. Sometimes they feel as though they could almost kill each other, but then they go on vacation and come back sounding like newlyweds. In order to know a couple, we feel as though we have to observe them over many weeks and months and see them in every statehappy, tired, angry, irritated, delighted, having a nervous breakdown, and so onand not just in the relaxed and chatty mode that Bill and Sue seemed to be in. To make an accurate prediction about something as serious as the future of a marriageindeed, to make a prediction of any sortit seems that we would have to gather a lot of information and in as many different contexts as possible.