Thin-slicing: making snap judgements

When I had personal email and phone conversations with a prominent business woman based in South Africa, I was chuffed. For one simple reason, really: we had not met in person before, yet she was comfortable speaking to me for a few months before meeting me.

A few weeks later, while having our meal, she told me that she kept me on her list of contacts because she had a sense I was a genuine young man. She had checked my Twitter feed after I started approaching her about my being keen about her mentoring me. She continued to do this for a few months before we met. And she felt I was worthy of her constrained time. Now that I think about it, she made a crucial snap judgement without a lot of information at her disposal. Trusting her first instinct. What Malcolm Gladwell describes as thinking without thinking.

Please imagine for a moment — you’re looking for a candidate to fill in a vacancy in your business, what would be better for you: meet the potential employee at a restaurant, have a conversation for an hour, or choose the option of visiting their house when they’re not there and have a look at it and make your decision based on that?

A psychologist named Samuel Gosling went for the latter option, and he did a test. He wanted to find out whether it was possible to get to the truth about someone without having met them. Using the thinnest slices of knowledge. So he did a personality workout of 80 college students; he had students’ close friends fill out a questionnaire intended to measure the subjects based on the Big Five Inventory — a questionnaire which measures people across five dimensions (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional; stability and open — to new experiences). They did this while observing their dorm rooms, and make out what their personal spaces say about them and their personalities.

After that he tasked complete strangers to do the same thing. He wanted to gauge how close the two groups’ results would be. Is it possible to judge an individual’s character based on the type of environment they inhabit?

It turned out, overall, the strangers did far better than the close friends who’d first filled out the questionnaire. So perhaps when you are hiring, looking at a potential candidate’s room without them being there is a sure-fire way to get a good sense of their character and if they will fit in your business. Okay, further than that, the point of the story is this: it is possible and necessary at times to make crucial decisions with only a limited amount of information at our disposal. In business, the longer we wait for a mound of data to validate our decisions, the longer it takes to execute.

I once learnt this from an entrepreneur: in business, it is better to make the wrong decision, learn and recover from it than loiter in indecision.

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