Thin-slicing and the Key to a Happy Marriage

The human brain is capable of making complex decisions, sometimes, in a few seconds by acting on our impulses. It is part of our rapid cognition. The funny thing is, the majority of the times, these decisions are as good as thorough, deliberate, and rational choices. Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal, who first conceptualized this super-efficient brain function coined it as “thin-slicing.” In thin-slicing our brain makes quick assessments of the world around us or find patterns in situations by using very limited amount of information or narrow slices of experiences.

The interesting twist to thin-slicing is that it can be reverse-engineered to predict the outcome of complex human relationships such as a marriage. John Gottman of University of Washington set up the “Love Lab” where researchers watch videotapes and code the thin-slicing experiences of couples into series of emotional characteristics. It goes like this. While watching a couple talks about seemly mundane day-to-day activity such as laundry, money, sex, shopping or kids, experienced coders extract clues or “thin-slices” of every second of their interactions and categorize them into their corresponding emotional codes such as defensiveness, aggressiveness, compassion, neutral, caring, whining, contempt, anger, joy, love. These codes are, then, fed into a logical equation which calculates the probability of success—whether the couple would stay together or separate in the next fifteen years.

In this process, they also found one common factor for failure.

Gottman and his researchers have found that if they analyze a couple talking for one hour, they can predict the probability of success over 95% accuracy. If they analyze the couple for 15 minutes, the accuracy rate is still over 90%. Researchers fine-tuned the formulas even further that if they analyze the interactions for three minutes, they can still make a prediction with a remarkably high accuracy by using one common denominator.

In other words, the repetitive presence of one “thin-slice” of information is enough to draw the conclusion. It was contempt.

Merriam-Webster dictionary describes contempt as act of despise or lack of respect. The “thin-slicing” research has shown that it is the presence or absence of contempt that makes a relationship break or make. Contempt is different from criticism which is necessary in a relationship. Contempt comes from a superior place, attempting to put the other person in a lower place. The hierarchical nature of contempt makes it more damaging.  If the level of contempt can be measured in a relationship, it alone is sufficient to predict the outcome. In the contrary, the absence of contempt, which is respect, caring and equality, describes a successful partnership or healthier marriage.

Why Can't we Self-ticle -- The Amazing Truth about Gambling

The sensation for tickling comes when someone else does it. We would not be able to get a giggle even if we had tried. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore theorized it is because we know when and where we are going to tickle. She made a tickling machine to test her theory. The predictability (when) and control (where) cut the sensation out of self-tickling. We pay good money to get surprised by watching horror movies or riding on a roller coaster.  If there is the right dose of lack predictability and lack of control, it can feel great; sometimes, to a point of being addictive—welcome to the success of Las Vegas.

Las Vegas is situated in the middle of the Arizona desert near the hills. There are no lakes or rivers, yet, it is the most illuminated city in the United States. If you have landed in Las Vegas at night, it looks like one big mesmerizing light bulb from out of nowhere. If you walk in the “Strip” at night it feels like something out of this world—not because of semi-naked men and women dancing in the corners; not because of several stories’ massive TV screens with live music; not because of the elegant MGM Grand, Bellagio, Mirage and other casinos and hotels; not because of free alcohol; not because there are no clocks; not because of the Bellagio Water Show – it is the combinational effect of all of these. It gives the illusion that the environment is so secure and comfortable, and within it, there is immense amount of surprise and lack of control. Like the Hoover Dam that lights up Las Vegas, the city operates in brilliant ways to manipulate us into gambling by asserting that the surroundings are so benign rather than malevolent that the outcome is going to be a good as long as you keep spending.

The brain contains pleasure pathways that uses the neurotransmitter dopamine. Wolfram Schultz has shown that the great pleasures come not from the initial reward, but from the anticipation of future rewards. It shows the really good thing about tickling is not the tickle itself but the anticipation of being tickled. The appetite for the anticipation of a future reward generates happiness. In a safe surrounding, lack of control and predictability fuel dopamine release and a sense of anticipatory pleasure. This pleasure is addictive.

Despite these psychological negatives, winning in gambling is great. Unfortunately, free money seems to leave as fast it arrives. There are so many sad stories about gambling winners, following is my favorite. It is because when Jack Whittaker won the Powerball, he was already a millionaire with net worth of 17 million.

One day in 2002 Whittaker did something spur of the moment. After stopping his car for fuel and sandwich, he saw the whopping $100 million jackpot and decided to wager $100. It paid off handsomely, what was, at the time, the largest jackpot ever by a single ticket—$314.9 million.

That fortune was the beginning of his misfortunes.

In the following two years, during two break-ins into his car thieves took away $745,000 ($200,000 was recovered). In 2004, his granddaughter Brandi’s boyfriend found dead in Jack’s home due to a drug overdose. In the same year, his beloved granddaughter, who was missing for 11 days, was found dead, wrapped in a plastic bag and laying behind a van in a possible overdose. It was a devastating loss that Jack blamed on his lottery money. Then, there were a series of legal troubles due to gambling losses. In 2006, thieves cashed in checks clearing away Jack’s bank account. In 2009, Ginger Whittaker, Jack’s daughter and the mother of Brandi was found dead. In 2016, Jack’s uninsured West Virginia home was completely gutted by fire. Aftermath of this tragedy Jack Whittaker said “I wish I would’ve torn the ticket up.”

Wanna be Primed?

We have an amazing "locked door" in our consciousness. The beauty is, we are not even aware of its effects. More than consciousness, the subconsciousness (feeling, hunch, impression, implicit bias...) impact our actions. And it can be "primed." That's, in part, what education does. As a simple example, construction vehicles like backhoes are painted in yellow; pedestrian crossings are in yellow so as traffic lights and school buses. Without explicitly thinking, we are "primed" to slow down, pay attention and be "cautious" when we see yellow.

The psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson using black college students and questions taken from the GRE exam. When the students were asked to identify their race on a pretest questionnaire, that simple act was sufficient to prime them with all the negative stereotypes associated with African Americans and academic achievement. And the number of items they got right was cut in half.

In college admission, we place enormous trust in test scores such as SAT, ACT because we think that they are reliable indicators of the test-takers ability and knowledge. If a White or Asian student from  prestigious private high school get a higher SAT/ACT score, than a African American or Hispanic student from inner city school, is it because the White or Asian student was actually a better student or is it because he or she is constantly primed to be "smart" and the inner city African American student was constantly primed not to be so "smart".

How to survive in a hostile workplace

Stomach is highly acidic with hydrochloric acid (HCl) which is secreted to digest pizzas to frog legs and everything else in between that we consume. As a result, stomach is considered one of the most sterile places in the body.

In 1983, an obscure pathologist from Australia named, Barry Marshall theorized a bacterium called, Helicobacter, which turned up in biopsies of people with stomach ulcers, actually, caused the ulcers. It was against the popular scientific belief, at the time, that ulcers were caused by stress, spicy food, or too much acid. When he presented his findings in gastroenterological conferences, he was ridiculed—since the stomach is incredibly acidic no bacteria can survive there. And the bacteria turned up in his research could be by accident or error in data collection.

True to his scientific rigor and passion for discovery, in a heroic act, Marshall swallowed some of the Helicobacter bacteria which caused ulcers in his stomach. Then, he kept talking about Helicobacter in conferences. In order to put an end to this nonsense, some experts in the field got together to do some experiments.

They found out Barry Marshall was absolutely right.

Helicobacter Pylori evolved to live in an acidic environment by wrapping itself in an acid-resistant protective coat of bicarbonate. It damages the inside layer of the stomach when it gets a chance. This bacterium is the reason for 80-90% stomach ulcers.

In 2005, Barry Marshall was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of Helicobacter Pylori.

Ulcer Givers, Ulcer Receivers and Coping with Stress

The stresses we encounter day-to-day have real impact on our well-being. Evidence shows that it can shorten our lifespan. Well...that's crazy! Can I do something? One of the best ways to cope with stress is to have some avenues of frustration, and if possible, avenues to displace your frustration (here comes the notion of ulcer giver and ulcer receiver). Nah...ulcers are not caused by stress but by Helicobacter bacteria (the identification of this bacteria was one of the biggest twists in psychological research). However, stress may trigger the wakening of Helicobactor when it suppresses immunity.

Research shows subordination is a massive stressor. This gives rise to the idea that a boss can be an ulcer giver and the employee can be an ulcer receiver. That is almost true if the employee does not have any avenues to release frustration.

It always amazes me how people in Sri Lanka cope with stress with everything that goes around in the country -- political instability, corruption, racial tension, religious tension, high inflation, dengue fever etc. It is because of the availability of avenues to release frustration: social support (a shoulder to cry on); sharing/supportive culture; church, mosque or temple in every few miles.

Hippocampus what?

This word felt really weird to me, at first. Since it is a campus, I found it easier to remember. Hippocampus together with cortex play a vital role in how we remember stuff. If hippocampus is the keyboard, cortex is like the hard drive. There are explicit (how I know my phone #) and implicit (how I drive while arguing with my wife) memory (long and short-term memories). When we do things for long enough explicit becomes implicit that we don't have to remember or think how to do it. (We should not get confused with other autonomous acts such as blinking and heartbeat.)

There is a famous case that illustrates the difference between implicit and explicit memories: Henry Molaison (1926-2008) alias H.M. (Manchester, CT). His case had been studied heavily. Due to a bicycle accident at age 7, H.M. suffered epilepsy that resulted in severe seizures. In a dire attempt to save his life, a renowned neurosurgeon at Hartford Hospital removed part of his hippocampus, as a result, it became 100% non-functional. With the loss of hippocampus, H.M. completely lost his ability to turn new short-term memories into long-term ones. However, his ability to form long-term implicit (procedural) memories was intact; thus he could, for example, learn new motor skills, despite not being able to remember learning them. For example, he could be given a puzzle day after day, and he could solve it as fast as anyone else, while denying he has ever seen it before. His hippocampus and explicit memory are gone, but he can still form implicit memories.

Dr. Harlow, Mr. Gage and Prefrontal Cortex

On a summer’s day in Vermont, in 1848, a young Dr. Williams was politely informed that there was someone in need of his assistance, and soon found the patient vomiting out part of his own brain. This was – mercifully – not an ordinary case. The patient in question, Phineas Gage had just been struck through his head by a narrow iron pole. This was usually used to help plant explosives, clearing the way for a future railroad, but now lay covered in blood and gore. The explosion had happened unexpectedly, firing the metal bar up through his prefrontal cortex, leaving a hole clear through.

There were at least two unusual occurrences with this case. The first was that Mr. Gage survived, the second is that he was studied so well. Dr. Harlow, who took over with the care of Phineas, was a fastidious physician, ensuring that the story of Phineas Gage would be extensive enough to study for decades to come. In particular, Harlow was able to document how Gage’s behavior changed following the injury – how he went from a calm and stoic man, to one ruled by capricious emotions. This case would ultimately help our understanding of how the prefrontal cortices function, and how they can rein in the more risk-prone parts of our personalities. It would be a safe bet that he would not make safe bets on the Iowa Gambling Task.

The Iowa Gambling task may be the first scientific evidence on why gamblers would lose in the long run. First designed by Antoine Bechara and others in 1994, the test was originally used to measure decision-making abilities. This decision-making required that the participants simply select a card from one of four decks – hardly a tricky bet. Unlike casinos however, the cards really are stacked in your favor – or against them.Two of the decks that can be selected will reliably provide a profit in the long-term. They don’t give big wins, but the losses (or “punishments”) are smaller, and you’ll come out on top if you stick to them. The other two decks however provide huge profits, but also huge losses, and over enough trials will leave you bankrupt. Of course, this information isn’t revealed to the participant – just that they should win as much money as possible.

While the participants complete the test, they have some information available to them – how their earnings (or losses) are looking. The decks never change in their likelihoods of delivering a profit or loss, so eventually the average person figures this out, and sticks to a strategy. They consistently select the decks that deliver profit over the long-term.

For some people however – problem gamblers in particular – the thrill of the bigger win is too much of a pull, and they will continue to select the “bad” decks even as the losses pile up. It’s not only problem gamblers who struggle to see clearly when presented with this task however. The very first study that utilized the test recruited individuals with prefrontal cortex damage as participants, finding that they too were susceptible to losses in the long run. As the original study demonstrated, one of the frequent outcomes from prefrontal cortex damage is the worsening of decision-making capabilities.

The story of Archie Karas is true, but it reads like a legend. With only $50 in his pocket, and a gambling spree in Las Vegas, he made himself a multimillionaire in a matter of weeks. Almost just as quickly, he lost it all. He joins a long list of gamblers who have defied the odds, but only for a while. The trope of a gambler pushing their luck too far me be something we can contribute to the function of their prefrontal cortex. (credit:

Implicit Association Test (IAT)

Harvard University's Project Implicit ( has done a remarkable job to expose our inner biases. It is a free test, and I highly encourage anyone to take it. There are different tests: age, race, weight, disability, weapons, religion etc. It helps me identify my own biases (self-reflection) so when I encounter certain situations I can be self-aware of these implicit biases. As neurologists say, identifying the biases help you get over with it. Even though I have taken its race test for a number of times, it still finds me having a moderately high association with whites.

People don’t always say what’s on their minds. One reason is that they are unwilling. For example, someone might report smoking a pack of cigarettes per day because they are embarrassed to admit that they smoke two. Another reason is that they are unable. A smoker might truly believe that she smokes a pack a day, or might not keep track at all. The difference between being unwilling and unable is the difference between purposely hiding something from someone and unknowingly hiding something from yourself. The Implicit Association Test (IAT) measures attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report. The IAT may be especially interesting if it shows that you have an implicit attitude that you did not know about. For example, you may believe that women and men should be equally associated with science, but your automatic associations could show that you (like many others) associate men with science more than you associate women with science (Project Implicit)

Make the best decision in the first 2 seconds

Thomas Hoving, the former Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Arts in NY (Met) had a look at the statue for a few seconds and turned to Arthur Houghton, the Curator of J. Paul Getty Museum in California,

“Have you paid for this?”

Houghton looked stunned.

“If you have, try to get your money back,” Hoving said, “If you hadn’t, don’t”

Macolm Gladwell’s “Blink – Power of Thinking without Thinking,” describes the purchase of a Greek “Kouroi” by the Getty Museum in for 10 million. The Kouroi is a very rare find that dates from 6 century B.C. It is a sculpture of a nude youth male standing with his left leg forward and his arms at his sides. Before making the purchase, Getty launched fourteen months of painstakingly thorough investigation using state-of-the-art technologies, document and ownership tracing to authenticate the statue.

The above conversation took place a few months after the purchase of the Kouroi.

The Getty was getting worried.

It turned out Hoving was right. This particular Kouroi was a fake. How did Hoving summarize the fourteen months of investigation in a few seconds?

Hoving keeps notes of the first thing that comes into his mind when he sees something new, “it was fresh,” not a good description of a 2000-year old sculpture!

This is the power of our inner super-computer, the 6th sense, the intuition, the instinct, the hunch, the gut-feeling, the experience or whatever. We all have felt it. However, it does not always make the right decision. Why? It has been found out that we, as humans, perceive and absorb more things than we think we do. Our six sensors, including the mind, have been working non-stop (even in sleep) and know more than we think we know. Unfortunately, the same emotions, feeling, biases that make us humans cloud this inner super-computer with six inputs so we cannot get it 100% right.

Making Stress less Stressful

Defining Emotional Intelligence, "Imagination, Cognition and Personality" scientific journal in 1990 states knowing or identifying your feelings can help managing those feeling. For example, if you understand you are angry, it helps manage it. As neurologists say, "name your feelings can tame your feelings." In other words, self-awareness. It takes practice. Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence says mindfulness meditation can make it more natural. The technique, paying attention to your breath noting non-judgmentally when your mind is wondering and then gently returning your attention to your breath -- trains you to observe what's happening to your feelings rather than get swept away by them. As such, it offers a more sustainable way to understand and stay on top of your moment-by-moment-well-being. What's more, a half-hour a day of mindfulness is enough to start inhibiting the amygdala's (the part of the brain that processes emotions) stress circuity, possibly as much as 50% so you become less emotionally reactive. 

Some tricks that may help cope with stress is a) have a plan B, "plan for the worst" (the idea that whatever you have in mind is not going to work out) b) compartmentalize (when the plumber calls that the job is going to cost three times you anticipate, don't let that craziness creeps into your brain when you walk into a meeting the the VP) c) get tunnel vision (concentrate : when chaos breaks around you, focus on the important things) d) prioritize (what is called triage in ER) 1. 2. 3. e) delegate tasks (do it in a stable, even-keeled way) f) talk your thought out loud (it helps those around you as well) g) choose your battles (practice give and give in) h) have an exist strategy (in negotiations, in life decisions or situations) i) count your breath (taking deep breaths also helps to activate parasympathetic nervous system that slows down heart rate and starts the calming down process) j) take is easy ("I'm still alive") k. show calmness, it is contagious.

Changing perceptions

As a young lawyer in his 20's when I first read Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends & Influence People" from my father's collection I thought it was outright stupid. May be it was in Sri Lanka's context or my idea of young and invincibility that I thought how I can treat someone nicely and expect something good? It is never going to happen. Only toughness can win people. I read, may be, about one chapter and put the book back -- waste of time. Some 15 years later, I thought of giving the book another try in the US. I bought it from Amazon, and did not put it back until I had finished it. I thought Dale Carnegie has very good points. Wow. This could work even though the process is challenging.

Anything to Read?

Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" opened up the fascinating world of cognitive and behavioral psychology for me. It got me thinking! When sharing the newfound interest at the office, a colleague of mine who has a Ph.D. in Psychology lent me Robert M. Sapolsky's "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers" which is an amazing book, if you wouldn't mind some technical stuff here and there. I'm very grateful to her. The other books that would give a broad overview of this vast subject are, "Pride and a Daily Marathon" by Jonathan Cole, "The Island of the Colorblind"  by Oliver Sacks, "How Doctors Think" by Jerome Groopman, "Meaning, Medicine and the 'Placebo Effect'" by Daniel Moerman, and rest of Malcome Gladwell's books such as "David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants". Recently, Time magazine published a special edition entitled, "The Science of Emotions: Love. Laughter. Fear. Grief. Joy" which gives a somewhat balanced view of how our body reacts to the directions of our mind. Another favorite is, "Against Empathy" by Paul Bloom which talks about rational thinking to shape compassion, for example, giving money to beggars exacerbate their situation or most of the wars were fought as a result of channeling our empathy of the victims as a force against the aggressor whether it is accurately or not. In other words, empathy can be weaponized.

How do we Catch Common Cold?

My father was diagnosed with transthyretin amyloidosis which was attributed to his untimely death. At that time, I was very confused with auto-immune diseases. A few years later, by sheer luck, a wonderful colleague recommended, Robert M. Sapolsky's "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers." In the book, the British Cold Study (British Cold Study) was discussed under "stress and disease link." The common cold is, thankfully, not an auto-immune disease, but it can explain a lot about our immune system.

The Medical Research Council in Salisbury, England which recruited healthy volunteers for their frequent two-week experiments about various aspects of coming down with and recovering from the common cold. Apparently, quite an experience: all expenses covered plus a small salary, many recreational activities in the peaceful Salisbury countryside, daily blowing of noses into collection tubes, questionnaires to fill out, and being spritzed up the nose with either placebo or a cold-causing rhinovirus.

Amazingly, only one in three, on average, of getting a cold while there--Two thirds won't catch the cold even when they had sneezed equal amounts of the virus.

If this is the case, if the person sitting next to you starts sneezing, the last thing you want is to get stressed out about it. Relax, if you had done your exercises, your yoga or whatever, taken your vitamins, if you are over 40, including vitamin C and D (during winter months when sun is not out) chances are very low for you to catch it.

It always puzzled me that doctors don't get sick that often even though they are the most exposed population to all sorts of crazy viruses. Is it because they know a lot more than us about the immune system and take care of it?

Are You Angry?

Brain studies show that when you are angry, the amygdala, a small structure in the primitive, impulsive limbic center, hijacks your conduct by triggering the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which then surges through your system. Recognizing your true state of mind (self-awareness) would make you calmer and save you from saying (emailing, texting) something regrettable. Here is why it's so effective: "when you note 'I'm angry,' you shift activity from the limbic system to the prefrontal cortex, the rational part of the brain that helps you think through how best to handle the situation," says Goleman. As neuroscientists like to say, naming your emotion helps you tame it. 

Amadou Diallo?

At that point, the attorney questioning Boss interrupted: "And how was his hand?"

"It was out."

"Straight out?"

"Straight out."

"And in his hand you saw an object. Is that correct?"

"Yeah, I thought I saw a gun in his hand....What I seen was an entire weapon. A Square weapon in his hand. It looked to me at that split second, after all the gunshots around me and the gun smoke and Ed McMellon down, that he was holding  a gun and that he had just shot Ed and that I was next."

Carroll and McMellon fired sixteen shots each: an entire clip. Boss fired five shots. Murphy fired four shots. Altogether 41 shots were fired. There was silence.  Guns drawn, they climbed the stairs and approached Diallo. "I seen his right hand," Boss said later. "It was out from his body. His palm was open. And where there should have been a gun, there was a wallet.... I said, 'Where's the fucking gun?'"

Rodney King?

"After 145," Grossman says, "bad things begin to happen. Complex motor skills start to break down. Doing something with one hand and not the other becomes very difficult....At 175, we begin to see an absolute breakdown of cognitive processing...The forebrain (prefontal cortex) shuts down, and the mid-brian (specifically amygdala) -- part of the brain that is the same as your dog's (all mammals have that part of the brain) -- reaches up and hijacks the forebrain (using the stress hormone cortisol). Have you ever tried to have a discussion with an angry or frightened human being? You can't do it.... You might as well try to argue with your dog."

I remember my first pursuit. I was only a couple of months out of the academy. It was through a residential neighborhood. A couple of times I was airborne. Finally we captured him. I went back to the car to radio in an say we were okay, and I couldn't even pick up the radio, I was shaking so badly."

Martin says that the Rodney King beating that ignited LA riots in the 60's was precisely what one would expect when two parties -- both with soaring heartbeats and predatory cardiovascular reactions -- encounter each other after a chase. "At a key point, Stacey Koon" -- one of the senior officers at the scene of the arrest -- "told the officers to back off," Martin says. "But they ignored him. Why? Because they didn't hear him. They had shut down.