33 Lessons from Talking To Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell
Feb 20, 2020
13 minute read

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

  1. Throughout history, battles overwhelmingly involved neighbors directly across the border because people then can only interact with those who are physically close. However, today we are now thrown into contact all the time with people whose assumptions, perspectives, and backgrounds are different from our own.
  2. Before WW2, Chamberlain misread Hitler’s intention. He was assuming that the information he got from his personal interaction with Hitler was uniquely revealing. In reality, the extra information actually helped to cloud his judgment. He was a master politician yet failed to read someone properly.
  3. Why are the group of people you expect not to be fooled are actually the ones get fooled more?
  4. Judges make bail decisions. This is the choice of whether to jail someone until trial or to let them go free on bail. They want to look at the defendant in the eyes to detect guilt or remorse to help them decide.
  5. An AI system was trained on historical judges’ decisions based on the defendant’s age and criminal record. The AI results were far superior. The people whom the AI system released are 25% less likely to commit a crime while awaiting trial compared to the judges. The AI system couldn’t see the defendant’s facial expression and demeanor, unlike the judges. It also can’t ask additional questions. This turned out to be an advantage. How is it that meeting a stranger can make us worse at making sense of that person?
  6. The ‘illusion of asymmetric insight’ dictates that we are convinced that we know others better than they know us. In one experiment, researchers asked the participant to fill in the blanks to complete words e.g., TOU_ _ → could either be TOUCH or TOUGH. Participants are convinced that their choices reveal nothing about them, but other’s choices reveal much. We think we can easily see into the hearts of others based on the flimsiest of clues. We jump at the chance to judge strangers. We would never do that to ourselves, of course.
  7. Timothy Levine researched deception. He conducted an experiment where people are recorded on video and are given a chance to lie. It turns out that an average person could identify 54-56% of the liars. Police officers, judges, and CIA officers fared no better.
  8. Enter “Truth-Default Theory” or TDT. We are much better than chance at correctly identifying the students who are telling the truth. But we’re much worse than chance at correctly identifying the students who are lying. We have a default to truth: our operating assumption is that the people we are dealing with are honest.
  9. To snap out of truth-default mode requires what Levine calls a “trigger.” We fall out of truth-default mode only when the case against our initial assumption becomes definitive. In other words, we start by believing. And we stop believing only when our doubts and misgivings rise to the point where we can no longer explain them away. You believe someone not because you have no doubts about them. Belief is not the absence of doubt. You believe someone because you don’t have enough doubts about them. Just think about how many times you have criticized someone else, in hindsight, for their failure to spot a liar. You should have known. There were all kinds of red flags. You had doubts.
  10. The “Holy Fool” is a truth-teller because he is an outcast. Those who are not part of existing social hierarchies are free to blurt out inconvenient truths or question things the rest of us take for granted. No one says a word except a small boy, who cries out, “Look at the king! He’s not wearing anything at all!” The little boy is a Holy Fool. We need Holy Fools in our society, from time to time. They perform a valuable role.
  11. In real life, lies are rare. And those lies that are told are told by a tiny subset of people. That’s why it doesn’t matter so much that we are terrible at detecting lies in real life. Defaulting to truth makes logical sense. You don’t want to second guess every single coffee shop and groceries bill for the rest of your life. If you don’t begin in a state of trust, you can’t have meaningful social encounters. Default to truth becomes an issue when we are forced to choose between two alternatives, one of which is likely and the other of which is impossible to imagine. And in those rare instances where trust ends in betrayal, those victimized by default to truth deserve our sympathy, not our criticism.
  12. Transparency is the idea that people’s behavior and demeanor—the way they represent themselves on the outside—provides an authentic and reliable window into the way they feel on the inside. It is the second of the crucial tools we use to make sense of strangers. Transparency is a myth. When a liar acts like an honest person or when an honest person acts like a liar, we’re flummoxed. Matched people conform with our expectations. Their intentions are consistent with their behavior. The mismatched are confusing and unpredictable. Are we sending perfectly harmless people to prison while they await trial simply because they don’t look right?
  13. The most disturbing of Tim Levine’s findings was when he showed his lying videotapes to a group of seasoned law-enforcement agents—people with fifteen years or more of interrogation experience. On “matched” senders, the experienced interrogators were perfect. You or I would probably come in at 70 or 75 percent on that set of tapes. But everyone in Levine’s group of highly experienced experts got every matched sender right. On mismatched senders, however, their performance was abysmal: they got 20 percent right. And on the subcategory of sincere-acting liars, they came in at 14 percent—a score so low that it ought to give chills to anyone who ever gets hauled into an interrogation room with an FBI agent.
  14. When you read through the details of the campus sexual-assault cases that have become so depressingly common, the remarkable fact is how many involve an almost identical scenario. A young woman and a young man meet at a party, then proceed to tragically misunderstand each other’s intentions—and they’re drunk.
  15. Those who study alcohol now consider alcohol as an agent of myopia, and what they meant by myopia is that alcohol’s principal effect is to narrow our emotional and mental fields of vision. It makes the immediate aspects of experience have a disproportionate influence on behavior and emotion. Alcohol makes the thing in the foreground even more salient and the thing in the background less significant. When alcohol peels away those longer-term constraints on our behavior, it obliterates our true self.
  16. It’s tough to tell, just by looking at someone, whether they’ve blacked out. It’s like trying to figure out if someone has a headache exclusively from the expression on their face. You can do anything in a blackout that you can do when you’re drunk.
  17. We are failing to let women know that when they render themselves defenseless, terrible things can be done to them. Young women are getting a distorted message that their right to match men drink for drink is a feminist issue. The real feminist message should be that when you lose the ability to be responsible for yourself, you drastically increase the chances that you will attract the kinds of people who don’t have your best interest at heart. That’s not blaming the victim; that’s trying to prevent more victims.
  18. In one study in Orange County, California, over 1,000 drivers were diverted to a parking lot late one night. They were asked to fill out a questionnaire about their evening, then interrogated by graduate students trained in intoxication detection. How did the driver talk? Walk? Was there alcohol on their breath? Were there bottles or beer cans in their car? After the interviewers made their diagnoses, the drivers were given a blood-alcohol test. Here’s how many drunk drivers were correctly identified by the interviewers: 20 percent.
  19. Air Force’s SERE program—Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape - aims to teach key personnel what to do if they fall into enemy hands. The subjects would be cold, hungry, forced to stand—awake—inside a box for days. Then came the interrogation. One particularly effective technique developed at SERE was “walling.” You wrap a towel around someone’s neck to support their head, then bang them up against a specially constructed wall.
  20. The point of the interrogation was to get the subject to talk—to crack open the subject’s memory and access whatever was inside. But what if the process of securing compliance proved so stressful to the interviewee that it affected what he or she could actually remember? In one study, participants couldn’t identify their interrogators. Out of the fifty-two students, twenty of them picked a doctor who weren’t even involved. In any court of law, the hapless physician would end up behind bars. Another more extensive study found that 77 out of 114 soldiers falsely identified their interrogators in a photo lineup—and this was 24 hours after interrogation! When these soldiers were asked how confident they were in their responses, there was no relationship between confidence and accuracy.
  21. In his book Why Torture Doesn’t Work, neuroscientist Shane O’Mara writes that extended sleep deprivation “might induce some form of surface compliance“—but only at the cost of “long-term structural remodeling of the brain systems that support the very functions that the interrogator wishes to have access to.”
  22. Poets die young. That is not just a cliché. The life expectancy of poets, as a group, trails playwrights, novelists, and nonfiction writers by a considerable margin. Something about writing poetry appears either to attract the wounded or to open new wounds.
  23. In 1962, 5,588 people in England and Wales committed suicide. Of those, 2,469—44.2 percent—did so with carbon-monoxide poisoning. It was by then the leading cause of lethal self-harm in the United Kingdom. Nothing else—not overdosing on pills or jumping off a bridge—came close.
  24. Displacement is the assumption that people would simply switch to another method. Displacement assumes that when people think of doing something as serious as committing suicide, they are tough to stop. Blocking one option isn’t going to make much of a difference. The alternative possibility is that suicide is a behavior coupled to a particular context.
  25. Coupling is the idea that behaviors are linked to particular circumstances and conditions. If suicide is coupled, then it isn’t merely the act of depressed people. It’s the act of depressed people at a particular moment of extreme vulnerability and, in combination with a specific, readily available lethal means. Suicide goes way up when town gas first makes its way into British homes. And it comes plunging down as the changeover to natural gas begins in the late 1960s. In that ten-year window, as town gas was being slowly phased out, thousands of deaths were prevented.
  26. Psychologist Richard Seiden. Seiden followed up on 515 people who had tried to jump from the bridge between 1937 and 1971 but had been unexpectedly restrained. Just 25 of those 515 persisted in killing themselves some other way. Overwhelmingly, the people who want to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge at a given moment want to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge only at that given moment. So when did the municipal authority that runs the bridge finally decide to install a suicide barrier? In 2018, more than eighty years after the bridge opened. Now, why is this? Is it because the people managing the bridge are callous and unfeeling? Not at all. It’s because it is really hard for us to accept the idea that a behavior can be so tightly coupled to a place. In one national survey, three quarters of Americans predicted that when a barrier is finally put up on the Golden Gate Bridge, most of those who wanted to take their life on the bridge would simply take their life some other way. But that’s absolutely wrong. Suicide is coupled.
  27. The Law of Crime Concentration says, like suicide, crime is tied to particular places and contexts. 3.3 percent of the street segments in the city accounted for more than 50 percent of the police calls. The researcher looked at New York, Seattle, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Dallas, and Boston. And every place they looked, they saw the same thing: Crime in every city was concentrated in a tiny number of street segments.
  28. AIDS is the same. Fifty census tracks out of fifty thousand had over half of the AIDS cases in the United States. AIDS didn’t look to him like a contagious disease roaming wildly and randomly across the land. It seemed to him like an interaction between certain kinds of people and certain particular places, an epidemic with its own internal logic.
  29. The most prominent example of how our inability to understand suicide costs lives: roughly 40,000 Americans commit suicide every year, half of whom do so by shooting themselves. Handguns are the suicide method of choice in the United States—and the problem with that, of course, is that handguns are uniquely deadly. Handguns are America’s town gas. What would happen if the U.S. somehow eradicated its leading cause of suicide? It’s not hard to imagine. It would uncouple the suicidal from their chosen method. A very conservative estimate is that banning handguns would save 10,000 lives a year, just from thwarted suicides. That’s a lot of people.
  30. Extra police patrol cars will make a difference—so long as officers took the initiative and stopped anyone they thought suspicious, got out of their cars as much as possible, and went out of their way to look for weapons. And once they’ve stopped a motorist, police officers are allowed, under the law, to search the car, so long as they have reason to believe the motorist might be armed or dangerous. And what was the principal implication of coupling? That law enforcement didn’t need to be bigger; it needed to be more focused. If criminals operated overwhelmingly in a few concentrated hot spots, those crucial parts of the city should be more heavily policed than anywhere else, and the kinds of crime-fighting strategies used by police in those areas ought to be very different from those used in the vast stretches of the city with virtually no crime at all.
  31. There is something about the idea of coupling—of the notion that a stranger’s behavior is tightly connected to place and context—that eludes us. It leads us to misunderstand some of our greatest poets, to be indifferent to the suicidal, and to send police officers on senseless errands.
  32. The anger in Ferguson wasn’t just about Brown’s death—or even mainly about Brown. It was, instead, about a particular style of policing that had been practiced in the city for years. The Ferguson Police Department was the gold standard of Kansas City policing. It was a place where the entire philosophy of law enforcement was to stop as many people as possible for as many reasons as possible. A police officer approaches a civilian on the flimsiest of pretexts, looking for a needle in a haystack—with the result that so many innocent people are caught up in the wave of suspicion that trust between police and community is obliterated. That’s what was being protested in the streets of Ferguson: years and years of police officers mistaking a basketball player for a pedophile. They instructed their police officers to disregard their natural inclination to default to the truth—and start imagining the worst: that young women coming from job interviews might be armed and dangerous, or young men cooling off after a pickup game might be pedophiles.
  33. How many extra guns and drugs did the North Carolina Highway Patrol find with those 400,000 searches? Seventeen. Is it really worth alienating and stigmatizing 399,983 Mikes and Sandras to find 17 bad apples?