Have you ever made an effort to conceal something from your friends, only to find out later that what you were trying to hide was obvious to them from the start?
If you think only they can read you like that, think again. Studies show that even strangers can tell a great deal about you from observing you for just 10 seconds.
Researchers call it “thin slice vision”. It involves quickly —and accurately— extracting personal information from nonverbal cues (i.e., body language).
Thin slice vision is possible because, while we can easily control what we say, we can’t as easily control our facial expressions or how we move. Yet these non-verbal cues say a lot about our emotions, dispositions, internal goals and motives, and social relationships.
By looking at you for at least 10 seconds (and no longer than 5 minutes), a stranger can make accurate inferences about your:
- Personality traits
Strangers can easily tell whether you’re extraverted or introverted —and much more. Researchers Borkneau and Liebler asked a group of people (let’s call them group A) to answer questions about their personalities. Then, they filmed each of them reading a weather report. They later showed the video, on mute, to another group of people (we’ll call them group B), who answered questions about the personalities of members of group A. The answers group B gave matched the answers that members of group A had given themselves.
In one study, researchers had people watch a silent video containing segments of admission interviews at a psychiatric hospital. Half the patients in the video were being admitted for depression, half for other reasons. Then, they asked spectators to point out who was being admitted for depression. They answered correctly 88% of the time.
- Sexual orientation
Sexual preferences are visible from thin slices. Researchers videotaped heterosexuals and homosexuals discussing topics not related to sex (e.g., the demands of academic and extracurricular activities). Then, they showed 10- and 1-second silent flashes of these videos to a group of volunteers, who were asked to judge the participants’ sexual orientation. Again, answers were accurate most of the time.
- Biased attitudes
Can people tell, using visual nonverbal cues, whether a teacher is likely to be biased? A researcher answered this question by getting high school students to view a 10-second silent clip of teachers they didn’t know giving a lecture to a class full of students. Then, he asked them to rate the extent to which teacher could be expected to treat high- and low-achieving students equally during a one-on-one interaction. Their ratings matched those of each teacher’s own students.
Strangers can infer the IQ of someone using one visual cue, according to one recent study: the eye gaze while speaking. Intelligent people gaze more at the people they’re talking to; people who gaze more at the people they’re talking to are generally perceived as more intelligent.
And you thought you could fool people.