I’m at the store.   I’m standing near the registers, choosing a checkout line.  The registers are crowded and I’m in a hurry.  These are my options:

A.      A older woman, perhaps in her late 60’s, looking for the expiration dates on a pile of coupons

B.      A young woman chatting happily with a co-worker about their plans for the weekend

C.      A young man, perhaps sixteen, asking lots of questions about how to operate the register

D.      A young man with a manager’s name tag pinned to his button down dress shirt

Which would you pick?  I choose D, and I’ll bet you would too.

Here’s why:

An unfair age bias would indicate that the older woman may have trouble with the computer system (Happily, this has been disproved by ScienceDaily’s article:  “Different Areas Of The Brain To Perform Same “Thinking Task” As Young.”  See?  Older people CAN use technology just as effectively as young people.)

The woman chatting with a co-worker is in no hurry to end her conversation with a friend.

The sixteen year old boy probably doesn’t know his job well enough to handle my purchase effectively.  (Reverse age-bias on my part.)

But the manager…well, the manager wouldn’t be the boss if he didn’t know how to use the register, right?  Plus he dresses well, so he clearly takes his job seriously.

Does that match what you were thinking?

What we’ve just done, according to Malcom Gladwell’s Blink, is called “thin-slicing.”  And it’s saved me – and you – countless minutes standing in line.

We all do it – this thin-slicing.  We walk into situations where we size up the room, the person, the opportunity with just a glance.  Thin-slicing allows our unconscious minds to find patterns in a variety of situations based on our own slices of experience (p. 23).  But is that a good or a bad thing?

The example of the check-out line would certainly appear to be a positive side of thin-slicing, but what about the flipside?   Malcolm Gladwell talks about the dark side of thin-slicing in The Warren Harding Error wherein a political candidate was selected because he looked the part – he later went on to become President (p. 75), though history shows a relatively ineffectual one.   Luckily that hasn’t happened since 1920 because we’re much smarter now.  Oh, wait…it has, hasn’t it?

Some other negative implications of thin-slicing might have to do with racism, ageism, sexism, prejudice in general.  It seems we, as the flawed human beings we are, have no shortage of pre-existing ideas and experiences to draw from, though it is a certainty that not all of them are 100% accurate.  We need to learn to recognize accurate assessments of situations around us, and acknowledge and understand when rapid cognition leads us astray (p. 76) because it will and does lead us astray more frequently than we might realize.

So as you enter your freshman year at UMass, how will you use your ability to thin-slice?  And how will you know when it is accurate?

Think about your first meeting with your new roommate.  Will you know within the first fifteen minutes whether you will be happy with this person? Will you compare playlists or talk about favorite movies?  Does he/she seem like they’re chill, or do they look uptight?  What will tell you whether or not it’s a good pairing?

Part of college is accepting and embracing new challenges and learning about the differences between people and experiences.  So even though we’ve been conditioned, to a certain extent, to thin-slice our way through life, it might be helpful to try and take a step back and open our eyes and see things in a new way.  Challenge your assumptions.

I know I’ve been wrong before.  I’ve been trapped countless times in the “fastest” checkout lane when the manager gets abruptly called away to help the new cashier or approve an override for an expired coupon.  My misjudgment led me down the wrong path, literally.

Assumptions can be tricky.  They can lead you astray.

Has that ever happened to you?