The Art and Science of Delay

Warren Buffett compares stock trading to being at bat, except that you don’t have to swing until there’s a fat pitch. Great athletes agree, but with shorter time horizons. They excel, not because of fast neurological responses, but because of their ability to delay as long as possible before reacting, returning a serve or grabbing a rebound. Successful CEOs, fire fighters, and military officers all know how to manage delay.

In this provocative, entertaining book, Frank Partnoy provides a necessary rebuttal to the gurus of “go with your gut.” He shows that decisions of all kinds, whether “snap” or long-term strategic, benefit from being made at the last possible moment. The art of knowing how long you can afford to delay before committing is at the heart of many a great decision—whether in a corporate takeover or a marriage proposal. Exploring decisions from those made in half a second to those that take months and years, Partnoy demonstrates that procrastination is often virtuous, that the ability to wait is the path to happiness, and that our gut instincts often betray us. We do not always make smart choices in the blink of an eye, as this eye-opening book reveals.


A fascinating and indeed timely new book.

– The Economist (Adrian Woolridge, management editor and Schumpeter columnist)

Mr. Partnoy’s intention in “Wait” is to take on those who evangelize the power of thinking quickly, “getting things done” and leading an organized life…. “Wait” offers a valuable counterweight to this attitude, reminding us that quality should matter as much as speed.

– Wall Street Journal (Christopher Chabris, psychology professor, Union College, and co-author of The Invisible Gorilla)

Frank Partnoy’s Wait is a superior example of the genre. It is a departure from his earlier books about financial crises, but written with the same easy elegance. … Partnoy makes mincemeat of the idea of “thin slicing” – the art of making snap decisions based on very little information – that was made so popular by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink. … As a collection of fascinating case studies, Wait is a gem.

– Financial Times (Lucy Kellaway, Financial Times management columnist)

Partnoy draws on the latest research in neuroscience and behavioral economics to provide a delightful, insightful and often surprising “Wait, wait, do tell me” account of decision-making in many areas of everyday life, ranging from sports to surgery to speed-dating to stock-picking …. Wait is chock-full of arresting insights about the complexities of decision-making.”

– Minneapolis Star-Tribune (Glenn C. Altschuler, Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University)

His latest offering is a skeptical response to Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 bestseller, Blink … Partnoy spends a lot of time synthesizing recent scholarship, providing clear and accessible accounts of work in an impressive range of academic fields. While the breadth and the depth of his research gives the book’s rather straightforward message its complexity and rhetorical power, the book’s charm comes from Partnoy’s ability to juggle such seemingly disparate topics as, on the one hand, an engaging discussion of recent science on animals and their conceptualization of future time and, on the other hand, an unabashedly doting analysis of the comic timing of Jon Stewart.

– Winnipeg Free Press (Vanessa Warne, Victorian literature professor, University of Manitoba)

What emerges is an important, if counterintuitive, perspective on delay in a culture obsessed with efficiency, speediness, and productivity that bleeds into the hasty and the rash.

– Brain Pickings (Maria Popova)

Well-written…. Chapter Three is particularly fascinating in its implications for how we make decisions and manage the world.

– 800-CEO-READS (Jack Covert)

Okay, okay, I know this review is supposed to have started already but if you’ll just give me a moment or two, I’d like to gather my thoughts and get myself another coffee. And a biscuit. Actually, maybe make that a Tunnock’s teacake ….

Mm. Delicious. Now then. Where were we? Ah, yes, the review. I’ll just finish this coffee and then I’ll really get down to it. Any minute now ….

So. The review. It’s of this new book by American financier-turned-bestselling-guru Frank Partnoy …. The moral is clear, says Partnoy, and quite frankly I, for one, am right behind him – don’t just do something: stand there.

– The Daily Mail (Harry Ritchie)

Despite conventional thinking about the benefits of being first and fastest, most of us react too quickly, according to Frank Partnoy, a professor at the conventional thinking about the benefits of being first and fastest, most of us react too quickly, according to Frank Partnoy, a professor at the University of San Diego. In Partnoy’s new book, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, a Gladwell-esque compendium that taps research in fields including medicine, finance, psychology, and law, he proposes a contrarian perspective on decision making that suggests that slowing down your response time can yield better results. … [T]he book uses case studies of “delay specialists” in realms as varied as stand-up comedy and warfare, extending the implications of postponing responses in order to improve outcomes in every part of our business and personal lives. Procrastinators everywhere will rejoice.

– strategy + business (Justin Pettit)

Read: “Wait” by Frank Partnoy
Frank Partnoy’s latest is a non-threatening, science-y how-to for making better decisions. Citing fascinating studies in tennis serves and first dates, he deftly makes a case for exercising something we could all use more of: patience. Plus, you gotta love a guy who dedicates his book to his golden retriever.
At: Palena Cafe
There’s so much praise for the roasted chicken at Palena Cafe it deserves its own book. Until then, stay preoccupied with Partnoy’s as you sit at the table and anticipate the delicacy, which takes an agonizing 45 minutes to prepare.

– Washington Post Express, Books & Crannies (Holley Simmons)

In his marvelous new book, WAIT, Frank Partnoy takes a focused and practiced aim at Jim Cramer’s Mad Money … if you watch the show and act on its recommendations, you’ll likely lose almost one-third of your money in less than two months. In other words, while the frantic pace of the show may compel you to rush into action, the smart money is on procrastination ….  Unlike many writers surveying the business scene, Partnoy knows firsthand what he’s talking about …. Delayed gratification is great for the waistline; it could be great for the bottom line too. The book couldn’t come at a better moment.

– CBS News MoneyWatch (Margaret Heffernan)

Giving a thumbs-up to procrastination, financial expert Partnoy (Infectious Greed) notes that, while we “are hard wired to react quickly,” everyday experiences can be altered and improved by delaying decisions. He backs this claim with solid research across a variety of fields, from behavioral economics and neuroscience to psychology, animal behavior, finance, and law. Pacing is a key element in everything from race-car driving to comedy: “When a master comedian is on, he or she creates a new and warped world of time. The greatest comedians are masters of delay.” Even such quotidian questions as “When is the ideal moment to apologize?” are ruled by subtleties of time. Athletes know the value of delaying, as do CEOs and military strategists. Irene LaCota, head of the It’s Just Lunch dating network, refuses to include photos in profiles to keep her clients from making snap decisions. To illustrate the “slow hunch,” a full chapter details the two 3M scientists who patiently waited and persisted for 12 years while management decided whether Post-it Notes would be a good product. Entertaining and provocative, Portnoy probes and illuminates the complexities of human decision making with surprising insights and recommendations.

– Publishers Weekly

A leading expert on financial market regulation studies the virtues of delay and even inaction.

In the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, Partnoy (Law and Finance/Univ. of San Diego; The Match King: Ivar Kreuger, the Financial Genius Behind a Century of Wall Street Scandals, 2009, etc.) asked “why our leading bankers, regulators and others were so short-sighted and wreaked such havoc on our economy.” While there is a high premium today for speed, the author suggests that there are serious downsides to rapid decision-making, unless it is accompanied by long-term strategic thinking and planning. Partnoy’s interdisciplinary approach uses elements of behavioral economics, neuroscience and even sports, as he shows how professional tennis and baseball players give themselves the extra milliseconds needed to process the trajectory of a ball before responding. Good judgment depends on allowing enough time for necessary mental processing to occur. The decision may appear to be spontaneous, but prior experience is almost always a factor—whether it occurs preconsciously, in milliseconds, or consciously, in seconds or longer time frames. Partnoy’s results are groundbreaking and a potential corrective to modern pressures for rapid response, whether on the playing field, in high-speed computer trading and corporate boardrooms, or on the battlefield. The author argues that although circumstances vary—each having its own requirements—and one size does not fit all, society must foster long-term decision-making in addition to making time for better shorter-term efforts.

A fascinating addition to the study of decision-making. File alongside Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Ariely, Jonah Lehrer and other similar writers.

– Kirkus Reviews (STARRED REVIEW)


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Excerpt from Chapter 6:

The expression “thin slicing” was coined in a 1992 article published by Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal in the Psychological Bulletin. They used the term to describe people’s ability to detect patterns in an event even if they experience only a narrow portion of that event. In particular, they focused on what people can glean from brief, silent video clips. And their answer was: a lot.

Their best-known finding, from a 1993 follow-up study, was that people who watched a series of brief, silent videos of a teacher reached similar judgments about the teacher as did students and supervisors who sat through the teacher’s class for months. The study has been widely cited as an example of the power of our unconscious system. Its subtitle says it all: “Predicting Teacher Evaluations from Thin Slices of Nonverbal Behavior and Physical Attractiveness.”

The concept of thin slicing dates back at least to the 1930s, when psychologist Gordon Allport claimed people can make broad generalizations about the personalities of others based on limited exposure. During the following decades, a few psychologists suggested that people form accurate impressions of each other merely from a glance, but these views were con- troversial and largely unsupported. Most researchers remained skeptical, and until recently the popular view was that our first impressions of strangers are often wrong and rarely useful.

That changed in 2005 when author Malcolm Gladwell published Blink, a brilliant and accessible book that introduced thin slicing research by Ambady, Rosenthal, and others to a broad audience. Gladwell begins with an example of thin slicing extraordinaire, a story about whether a marble statue purchased by the J. Paul Getty Museum in California was a fake. He describes four experts who saw the statue and were instantly repulsed. He then introduces his book as follows: “In the first two seconds of looking—in a single glance—they were able to understand more about the essence of that statute than the team at the Getty was able to understand after fourteen months.”

It was tempting for readers to draw a simple message from such a story: tap into the power of thin slicing, master those first two seconds, and you too can be an expert, not just with videos and art but in every aspect of life. Thin slicing became the rage as more and more people latched on to the apparent magic of the first two seconds.*

* Malcolm Gladwell recognizes many of the dangers of thin slicing in Blink. He discusses racism by New York City police officers in the shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Guinean immigrant, and explains how music auditions are biased based on gender. But even though Blink covers the downsides of thin slicing, the public seized on the pros more than the cons, either because that was where public opinion was inclined to go, or because readers didn’t make it to (or focus on) the final third of Gladwell’s book.

Enter that term in a search engine today and you will get more than four million results. Gardner Resources Consulting in Wellesley, Massachusetts, will help you “thin slice your way to better hiring decisions.” Virtulink LLC has developed “procedure thin-slicing,” a consulting methodology to help companies stream- line performance.

The two-second time interval became a popular mantra for thin slicing. Suddenly, everyone was talking about two seconds. This comment from The Lit Show, a Chicago radio program, was typical: “In the first two seconds we meet a new person or challenge, our unconscious naturally sifts through the stimuli and keys in on the important details.” Malcolm Gladwell reinforced the importance of the two-second interval in talks, on his website, and within Blink, which he summed up as “a book about those first two seconds.”

Stop for a moment now—for longer than two seconds please—and think about the idea of “thin slicing.” When we thin-slice, we detect patterns in an event even if we see only a narrow portion of that event. The key to the concept is that we reach a conclusion even though we don’t have the full picture. Thin slicing is driven by the unconscious system because it takes the lead over the conscious system in decision-making during such a short period.

But thin slicing is almost never about just two seconds. In fact, not even the titles of the leading articles on thin slicing are about two seconds. The revolutionary paper by Ambady and Rosenthal is entitled “Half a Minute.” John Gottman’s coauthored study of videotapes of couples (which Blink describes as his “thinnest slice”) is called “Predicting Divorce Among Newlyweds from the First Three Minutes of a Marital Conflict Discussion.” Minutes, not seconds.

Neither of those studies found that anything close to two seconds was the optimal thin slice. To the contrary, Ambady and Rosenthal found that although students who watched three two-second videos (six seconds total) of a teacher did pretty well in matching the evaluations of people who sat through the entire semester, students who watched ten-second-long videos did better. More recently, Ambady and other coauthors defined a thin slice as “any excerpt of dynamic information less than 5 min long.”

Perhaps the most famous thin-slicers of all are John and Julie Gottman, cofounders of the Gottman Relationship Institute, which advertises:

“We’re able to quickly determine a great deal of information about a couple from analyzing a very thin slice of data collected in one short lab session.” In Blink, Gladwell marvels at John Gottman’s snap assessments of married couples and relies on Gottman’s research in concluding that “thin slicing often delivers a better answer than more deliberate and exhaustive ways of thinking.”

But we don’t know how well participants in the Gottman study would do during two seconds because they examined intervals that were 180 times longer than that. Indeed, although John Gottman is good at making snap judgments about couples, he recommends gathering information over a much longer time period: two days, not two seconds.*

* The Gottman Institute’s “Art and Science of Love” workshop lasts two days, as does “Deepening the Gottman Method.” Other multi-day programs include: “Private Couples Retreats,” “Marathon Couples’ Therapy” (at the Gottmans’ private island home), and “Premarital Preparation” (this one makes a great wedding gift!). The Gottmans do not offer a two-second therapy session. See http://www.gottman.com. And recall from Chapter 1 that Gottman also is not opposed to using much thinner slices than two seconds when appropriate, as he did with the studies of young children’s milliseconds-long cardiac reactions to their parents.

So how thin should a thin slice be? The answer is rarely two seconds. If we are judging whether someone is dangerous, our brains and bodies are wired to react very quickly, within milliseconds. We assess race, gen- der, and age in a fraction of a second. We aren’t as good at guessing sexual orientation, but, to the extent we see it, we see it right away: when students are shown a photo of a man and asked if he is gay, they are about as accurate within one hundred milliseconds as they are after longer periods. For these reactions, we don’t need anything close to two seconds.

But for other questions, two seconds isn’t nearly long enough. If we are asked to tell whether someone is friendly or dangerous, we do better with more time. To accurately assess whether someone is sociable, we need at least a minute, preferably five. The same is true if we are judging complex aspects of personality, such as neuroticism or open-mindedness. For these decisions, our impressions during the first two seconds fail us. We need more time.

For many judgments, thin slicing has a kind of learning curve, steep at first as we quickly gather information about what we are watching and then flatter as we process that information. Although some people describe thin slicing as a snap judgment, it is really more of an acceleration than a snap, more like a car climbing a hill than a lightbulb going on. Sometimes we do reasonably well within a few seconds, but we often do better with a minute or longer. It depends on the difficulty of the assessment—the steepness of the hill. Usually thin slicing isn’t as easy as flipping a switch.

As we examine decisions that take at least a few seconds, we will see that our ability to gather and process information can vary widely during different time intervals. The research on thin slicing demonstrates that we can be fast, but it also shows that even a little bit of extra time can often help us make better decisions. One slice does not fit all, and there is nothing magical about two seconds. Instead, how long we should thin-slice depends on what we are slicing.

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“Having mined the best of American research in fields as wide-ranging as finance, behavioral economics, and law, Frank Partnoy has written a beguilingly readable treatise that boils down to a single, easily digestible conclusion: in our busy modern lives, most of us react too quickly. Wait will naturally and rightly be compared to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow as a trail-blazing book exploring the hidden crannies and the treacherous pitfalls of human decision-making. I whole-heartedly recommend it.”

-Roger Lowenstein, author of The End of Wall Street and When Genius Failed

“Wait is one of those rare books that will change not just the way you think, but the way you act. The book is full of ideas that are fascinating, useful—and at times mind-blowing. I was captivated.”

-Bethany McLean, co-author of The Smartest Guys in the Room and All the Devils Are Here

“Frank Partnoy turns conventional wisdom on its head with this counterintuitive approach to decision-making. Rather than telling us how to make decisions faster and faster, he mines and refines a rich lode of information from experts in a surprising variety of fields to demonstrate the power of delay, whether measured in milliseconds, days, or decades. Wait is a great read, chock full of fascinating insights.”

-Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive and A Whole New Mind