Thin Slicing in Jane Austen’s “Emma”

Emma was published in 1815, and was the last of Jane Austen’s six novel. This book, teeming with Austen’s renowned wit, chronicles the misadventures of Emma Woodhouse, a woman who is described as being, “handsome, clever and rich with a comfortable home and a happy disposition.” She is one of those rare characters that has had very little to vex her in her twenty-one years apart from the occasional barb from her lovingly caustic friend Mr. George Knightly. There is no other person in the book more willing to point out Emma’s faults than he is. However, Emma is nigh impervious to the criticisms in the beginning, and after her success in matching her former governess, Miss Taylor with Mr. Weston, her neighbor, she decides to continue her hobby of matchmaking and pair her protégé, Harriet Smith, with Highbury’s very own vicar, Mr. Elton. Hilarity ensues. Much of this hilarity comes from a psychological quirk shared by two of the female leads, Emma Woodhouse and Harriet smith. This is the inability to thin slice.

What is Thin Slicing?

In psychology, thin slicing is the ability to make judgments based on sparse information. This ability finds its origin in the adaptive unconscious of the human mind. The term , which was first coined by Dr. Daniel Wagner in 2002, describes ” the automatic, unintentional, and uncontrollable processes of the subconscious mind.” Although this notion on the adaptive unconscious is based on Sigmund Freud’s view of the unconscious, it is not the same. In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell explains that Freud’s unconscious is a place of darkness and haze in which unsettling thoughts, dreams, and whims are repressed. The adaptive unconscious, on the other hand, is quick and calculating in its effort to aid human function. Human beings process a lot of information in their waking moments,not all of that information can be processed at the conscious level. The adaptive unconscious compensates for this. It works like a computer,making calculations at lightning speed and allow the individual to act within the same time frame.

The human mind is very powerful.

This is where thin slicing is born. It is the mechanism that allows someone to jump out of the way of a truck that is barreling towards them. In his book Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy D. Wilson states that “The mind operates most efficiently by relegating a good deal of high-level, sophisticated thinking to the unconscious, just as a modern jetliner is able to fly on the automatic pilot with little or no input from the human, conscious pilot. The adaptive unconscious does an excellent job of sizing up the world, warning people of danger, setting goals, and initiating action in a sophisticated and efficient manner.” The adaptive unconscious plays a huge role in how we interact with people. It acts as a driving force behind our emotional intelligence. The adaptive unconscious can allow us to detect and understand the personalities and hidden motives of our peers through instinct. As powerful as the unconscious mind, it is important to remember that it is not infallible. Often the judgments that emerge from it are mistaken, as evidenced in Emma.

Emma’s Faults

The most obvious example is Emma’s complete inability to detect Mr. Elton’s affection for her. Emma is thoroughly convinced that Mr. Elton has feelings for the young Harriet Smith. There are several occurrences in the novel that indicate that those feelings are actually for her, but she misinterprets every last one of them. His attentions to Ms. Woodhouse eventual lead to a direct confession, and Ms. Woodhouse is appalled to discover that she was the object of his infatuation. She rebuffs him with vehemence, and it leads to a falling out between the two and heartbreak for Harriet. How did the keen and observant Emma make this mistake?

Bias serves a deadly blow to the ability to thin slice. What makes thin slicing accurate is not simply the bits of information gathered in the moment, but a large reserve of information gathered in a lifetime through study or experience. In the same way that our biases can cloud deep introspective thought, they can influence our automatic thinking, and cause us to come to quick conclusions that don’t necessarily align with reality. Emma’s bias is for herself and her own powers of reason. Her experience is one of someone who had been given responsibility, authority, and praised as a brilliant thinker from a very young age. In the eyes of her peers, she can do no wrong. Naturally, she thinks that whatever conclusion she comes to is right and will be unable to perceive any evidence of her error. When a person has We see this again when she dismisses Mr. Martin as too coarse and uneducated to be a proper suitor for Harriet smith, whom she believes is a gentlemen’s daughter despite having no verifiable connections.

Harriet Smith is introduced as Emma’s friend and foil. While Emma is opinionated and clever, Harriet is portrayed as meek and daft. It is Harriet’s bias, towards Emma that leads her to mistake Mr. Elton’s affection for her. She too ignores all evidence of the contrary and is as a result unable to see any indication of Mr. Elton’s preference for Emma.  In spite of Harriet’s naivete, it can be argued that she is better at thin slicing than Emma is. Harriet has feelings for Mr. Martin and instinctively knows that he is a better match for her.When the truth about Mr. Elton is discovered she readily admits that she may have reached too high in her affection for him. This is in contrast to Emma’s shock and incredulity of having been proven wrong. Ironically, the gentle and passive behavior which led her to follow where Emma lead, allows her to be more resigned to frank realities than Emma headstrong and grounded in her view points. Through this natural resignation, Harriet expresses her feelings according to her instinct even while she believes in the false hope that Emma unwittingly created for her. She believes that Mr.Elton loves her, but she is elated when Mr. Martin proposes. She rejects his proposal, but is flustered when she sees him again. Harriet’s story arc comes to its completion when she finally acts on her attraction and instinctive knowledge of Mr. Martin’s trustworthiness as a partner and accepts his proposal. Emma, her rigid mentor undergoes a change as well through a series of blunders, she slowly gains humility. If Harriet’s journey can be interpreted as learning to act on her thin slicing, Emma’s journey is about draw back and recognize that she has more growing to do. She must expand her dismantle her self righteous and expand her her reserve of information if she is to improve this particular mode of thinking. The same is true for us, the readers. Viewing this novel in light of the power of thin slicing allows us to draw from it lessons about confronting our biases and exposing ourselves to the antithesis of our self-centered thinking.

Works Cited

Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Back Bay Books,2005. Print

Gray,Antony and Jane Austen. The Complete Novels of Jane Austen. Wordsworth Edition Limited,2004. Print

Wilson, Timothy D. Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. Cambridge, Mass: Belkin Press of Harvard University Press, 2002. Print

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  1. I’ve tried to reread it twice, and never got further than half way, but this analysis has persuaded me to have another go.

    • I think Emma can be the hardest of her novels to enjoy first time – particularly if you are young and the embarrassment that the heroine suffers can feel a little too close to home. One of the interesting things about the book is the influence that it has on two later popular genres – both the ‘comedy of embarrassment’ that is the driver of so many British and US sitcoms and the ‘classic’ British detective story.

      This not only takes Austen’s three of four families as its basis but constantly uses the misdirection that Austen pioneers throughout this novel to keep the story going. You could argue that Agatha Christie’s entire oeuvre is not so much Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters as Emma and Corpses.

  2. She’s a puzzle Jane Austen. She wrote superfically conventional, conservative books.. nothing a Victorian family would ban their daughter from reading and yet no one conveys the horror of women’s limited choices in life like Austen . Was shean undercover feminist?

  3. “Emma” is a novel that rewards every re-reading.

    I was introduced, as a very reluctant 16 year old, at school when it was an ‘A’ level set text. On first reading I was less than impressed. Over the next two years my, excellent, teacher illuminated the brilliance of the text.

    Since then I have re-read every few years.

    Emma has one of the greatest lines in Jane Austen – “It was a delightful visit;-perfect, in being much too short.”

  4. Jane Austen makes brilliant writing look easy – only when you go back and realise how subtle and clever the writing is – you appreciate why it has become such a literary and cultural icon.

  5. Jane Austen has always been one of my favourite comedy writers. I love her tongue in cheek sarcasm.

  6. Of our greatest writers who wrote about the lives of women, Austen pales in comparison to Bronte in my opinion. Bronte’s women had guts, grit as well as being part of a good story. Austen’s characters bored me to pieces. Not through want of trying (I’ve had a go at Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility  and Pride and Prejudice) I just can’t enjoy (or maybe i just can’t appreciate) Austen as I’m perhaps meant to.

  7. Delightful article – I’ll read Emma again with fresh eyes.

  8. Tomeka Ali

    I’m obviously shallow and lacking intellectual rigour but I just find Jane Austen incredibly dull.

    • Most of the people I’ve met who found Jane Austen dull, including me in my youth, have read it with TV costume dramas in mind. Jane Austen on the page is an extended piss take that dramatisers rarely manage to capture and it’s a lot of fun.

  9. It’s funny that Jane Austen should think the public would dislike her heroine in Emma. When I first read it I immediately liked her and found her very human, perhaps more human than other Austen characters. It was only after reading reviews and critiques from the best county families that I learned that Emma is generally allowed to be not very good company and that I should not take her into my affections so readily. Now I thoroughly dislike the young lady for her affected manners and superior airs, as is becoming of someone of my class.

  10. With Jane Austen, formal design starts to really become a vital element of the English novel – I think that Emma is in that respect the most flawless of her novels, just as The Ambassadors is of Henry James, though neither is my favourite of their author’s works.

  11. I know it is controversial but Emma is the only Austen I really enjoy. This is because in all her other works the protagonists (I think) are likeable but vague, allowing for people to simply impose what they wish on to them. This one of the reasons I think Pride and Prejudice is well loved, readers like to see themselves as the bookish Elizabeth Bennett.

    Emma, on the other hand, is a world class ***** and brilliant for it. Most other female fictional characters (by other writers) at this point are dull, overly virtuous or sinful plot devices. Miss Woodhouse, instead is a fully realised character who makes mistakes, is selfish and keeps trying to manipulate everyone around her. But, at the same time, I always feel for her and understand exactly where she comes from and what she wants. In terms characterisation she is miles ahead of anything else being written contemporaneously (at least to my knowledge).

  12. TheBlackCurse

    Interesting article.

  13. Wonderful analysis, great job.

  14. bow-bowre

    I kind of prefer Mansfield Park to Emma. Just speaking personally I think Mansfield Park felt like a much more mature work when I read it.

  15. Jane Austen has more knowledge of human nature in her little finger than most novelists have in their whole bodies.

  16. Austen was revolutionary and still feels incredibly modern. Many modern novels cannot achieve the level of characterisation that she did. That she managed to achieve this without technology, entirely self-taught and within the conventions of the day, in so little time, is simply extraordinary. People who think that she just writes about dresses and weddings are entirely incorrect — she writes about people and human nature. Like Shakespeare, you could take her stories of love, arrogance, duplicity and modernise them to still have the same effect. In fact, she barely mentions clothes or appearances at all unless it provides characterisation.

    • All excellent points. This is one of the reasons to love literary web series like “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries,” “Emma Approved,” “From Mansfield with Love,” “The Cate Morland Chronicles,” “Northbound,” … I’m probably forgetting some. They transfer Austen’s classic stories to modern settings in modern language so modern audiences (specifically the ones overwhelmed by the dense prose of the originals) can appreciate them. Look ’em up.

  17. You could look at ‘Emma’ as a tragedy. Emmas self absorption, and using of other people for her own self gratification, is rewarded by spending the rest of her life with the manipulative groomer Mr Knightley.

  18. Great article – never really liked Emma – but now I want to read it again.

  19. It makes me ashamed to admit that I hated ‘Emma’ and simply didn’t ‘get’ it and have never reread it though I love everything else Austen wrote.

  20. It’s probably one of my favourite books, and is also the basis for one of my favourite films “clueless”.

  21. Sarai Mannolini-Winwood

    A good quick discussion that prompts further thinking about this quality in other characters of the Austen “closet.” Also I love ‘Emma’ so always happy to see new facets being discussed.

  22. I love Jane Austen for the beauty she puts in through exquisite deacriptions of family life and women consciousness.

  23. Hard to understand how any reader would be surprised by the focus of the novel, as it is the only Austen novel to have a character’s name as the title.

  24. L:Freire

    The entire article is fascinating. The most intriguing part, however, is the paragraph that combines the definition with psychological relevance and mainstream authors such as Gladwell. It’s amazing how the human mind can hover over an insignificant point while hindsight resolves the major hurdles, practically in our sleep as you mention therein.

  25. Stephanie M.

    Psychology and Jane Austen–always a winning combination. Love it!

  26. Hi. Sorry to be that person, but there’s a typo in the first sentence of this article as of 4/19/18 7:15 PST.

  27. As a matter of interest, the first major work of digital literary criticism was based on analysis of the works of Jane Austen – Computation into criticism: a study of Jane Austen’s novels and an experiment in method (1987) – ground breaking for its time.

  28. Nice connection between literature and psychological studies.

  29. Bias and thin slicing would seem joined at the hip. That connection would make sense as a bigger focus in a longer version of this essay.

  30. Charly

    This article placing Emma at the intersection of literature and psychology seems so utterly fitting considering her own practice of and involvement in the two disciplines.

  31. Fascinating contribution. Emma is probably my favourite of Austen’s novels, and the psychological subtleties exhibited in the narrative are a big part of why it’s so engaging. Exploring character judgments through the lens of thin slicing is inspired, and made me reflect on the topic. It’s certainly true, as you say, that Harriet Smith also displays fallible thin slicing, but I think what’s interesting about this is that she gained her techniques from Emma. Towards the beginning we see Emma subtly imparting her judgments about Robert Martin and Mr. Elton to Harriet, which she picks up on. Because both of these are erroneous, this affects Harriet’s ability to thin slice for the rest of the novel. She entirely misinterprets Mr. Knightly’s gallantry, for instance, which leads her to believe that he might be in love with her.

    Great article. I’d be intrigued to see a follow-up exploring thin slicing in other Austen novels. Marianne’s interpretations of Willoughby and Col. Brandon particularly come to mind here, as well as the eponymous ‘pride and prejudice’ as sources of thin slicing affecting bias.

  32. I love this concept of thin-slicing! There have been other versions of it proposed before, most notably in regard to difficult tasks such as learning to play music or competing in athletics. In these fields, those who are very adept often talk about going into “The Zone”, a sort of trance in which they allow the body to take over because it actually performs better without so much mental intrusion! This clearly doesn’t work as well in human relationships, at least not for Emma. I have always seen her as a fairly smart but sheltered and hence misguided young woman who will learn by experience. My only argument involves Mr Elton and his continued wooing of her. To me, it was his fault and his elevated view of himself that caused him to pursue her, not her missing what he was about. She did get almost everyone else wrong, however!

  33. Gerald Mann (P. Ghasemi)

    Thin-slicing is a prefect way to think fast, or think without thinking!

  34. Fascinating topic; however, Emma was not the last novel published. Emma was the last novel published during Austen’s lifetime; Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously in 1817. Again, brilliant topic!

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