altTalking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown & Co, 2019)

I can't resist Malcolm Gladwell's books, even though they never fail to frustrate as well as intrigue. He reminds me of Steve Landsburg on economics, and other authors who turn conventional thinking upside down and reveal surprising truths. As I said about Gladwell in my review of What the Dog Saw, his ideas may not always be right—in fact I'd lay odds that they're often wrong, or at least greatly oversimplified—but they're always interesting, and always give new insight into what we don't know about what we thought we understood.

Talking to Strangers is no exception. For me, it started slowly, and only an impending library deadline forced me to prioritize reading it past the introduction and first chapter. After that, I was hooked and the rest of the 400 pages went by in a flash. Gladwell's like that. I get frustrated by his prejudices, errors, and simplifications, then get hooked by his discoveries and can't put him down.

People, Gladwell posits, are shockingly bad at determining whether or not they are being lied to by those they do not know. And by people, he means nearly everyone. The professionals, like Securities and Exchange Commission auditors, FBI agents, and judges, are no better at that job than the most innocent little girl lured to the big city with promises of an acting career. In fact, when it comes to making decisions about setting bail conditions, judges who meet face-to-face with alleged criminals have been shown to make far poorer decisions than computer models working with nothing but bare facts.

Part of the problem is that most of us "default to truth." When we interact with another person we're pre-programmed to assume he's honest and truthful, and it takes a great deal of evidence of malfeasance to overcome that. A few people are not like that—we call them paranoid. For example, a man named Harry Markopolos was aware of the massive deception pulled off by Bernie Madoff long before anyone else was, but no one believed him. They trusted Madoff and they trusted the system that was supposed to keep bad things from happening. Markopolos saw the truth because he didn't trust anybody

But here's the thing: that's no way to live.

In real life, ... lies are rare. And those lies that are told are told by a very small subset of people. That's why it doesn't matter so much that we are terrible at detecting lies in real life. Under the circumstances, in fact, defaulting to truth makes logical sense. If the person behind the counter at the coffee shop says your total with tax is $6.74, you can do the math yourself to double-check their calculations, holding up the line and wasting thirty seconds of your time. Or you can simply assume the salesperson is telling you the truth, because on balance most people do tell the truth. (pp. 99-100)

[H]uman beings never developed sophisticated and accurate skills to detect deception as it was happening because there is no advantage to spending your time scrutinizing the words and behaviors of those around you. The advantage to human beings lies in assuming that strangers are truthful. ... [I]t's easy to see all the damage done by people like ... Bernie Madoff. Because we trust implicitly, spies go undetected, criminals roam free, and lives are damaged. [But] the price of giving up on that strategy is much higher. If everyone on Wall Street behaved like Harry Markopolos, there would be no fraud on Wall Street—but the air would be so thick with suspicion and paranoia that there would also be no Wall Street. (pp. 100-101)

Referring to the infamous Penn State pedophilia scandal that broke in 2011, which turns out to be a whole lot more complex and confusing than we thought based on the media stories at the time:

If every coach is assumed to be a pedophile, then no parent would let their child leave the house, and no sane person would ever volunteer to be a coach. We default to truth—even when that decision carries terrible risks—because we have no choice. Society cannot function otherwise. And in those rare instances where trust ends in betrayal, those victimized by default to truth deserve our sympathy, not our censure. (p. 141)

Another mistake we make in judging strangers is pure hubris: we think we can tell what people are thinking or feeling by their facial expressions and body language. Nope. We're really terrible at that, too, especially if the stranger comes from a different cultural background. It reminds me of my mother's experience, years ago, as an elementary school teacher's aide. She was frustrated in her attempts to get the teacher to deal with the bullying of a small, Asian child—given the time period, he may have been a Southeast Asian refugee, but I don't know that for sure. "Surely it doesn't bother him," insisted the teacher. "You can see that he's smiling." My mother was certain that the "smile" indicated fear, not pleasure.

Transparency is a myth—an idea we've picked up from watching too much television and reading too many novels where the hero's "jaw dropped with astonishment" or "eyes went wide with surprise." (p. 162)

The transparency problem ends up in the same place as the default-to-truth problem. Our strategies for dealing with strangers are deeply flawed, but they are also socially necessary. We need the criminal-justice system and the hiring process and the selection of babysitters to be human. But the requirement of humanity means that we have to tolerate an enormous amount of error. That is the paradox of talking to strangers. We need to talk to them. But we're terrible at it. (p. 166)

It could be worse. One of the scariest sections of Talking to Strangers is about the Amanda Knox case. Amanda Knox, an American exchange student in Italy, was wrongfully convicted of the 2007 murder of her roommate.

I could give you a point-by-point analysis of what was wrong with the investigation of Kercher's murder. It could easily be the length of this book. I could also refer you to some of the most comprehensive scholarly analyses of the investigation's legal shortcomings.... But instead, let me give you the simplest and shortest of all possible Amanda Knox theories. Her case is about transparency. If you believe that the way a stranger looks and acts is a reliable clue to the way they feel, then you're going to make mistakes. Amanda Knox was one of those mistakes. (pp. 170-171)

Amanda Knox was different from the "social norms," as so many of us are.

"I was the quirky kid who hung out with the sulky manga-readers, the ostracized gay kids, and the theater geeks," she writes in her memoir. ... In high school she was the middle-class kid on financial aid, surrounded by well-heeled classmates. "I took Japanese and sang, loudly, in the halls while walking from one class to another. Since I didn't really fit in, I acted like myself, which pretty much made sure I never did." ...

"We were able to establish guilt," [the lead investigator] said, "by closely observing the suspect's psychological and behavioral reaction during the interrogation. We don't need to rely on other kinds of investigation." ... At every turn, Knox cannot escape censure for her weirdness. ... Why can't someone be angry in response to a murder, rather than sad? If you were Amanda Knox's friend, none of this would surprise you. You would have seen Knox walking down the street like an elephant. But with strangers, we're intolerant of emotional responses that fall outside expectations. (pp. 179-183)

I have many times been accused, even by my friends, of being angry, or sad, or some other emotional state that doesn't at all reflect my feelings, based solely on my facial expression. No amount of denial on my part seems to convince them, as they then assume that I am either lying or don't know my own "true feelings." There have also been times when I have been deeply saddened without showing any of the commonly expected signs. I think I'd be in trouble in court.

A trained interrogator ought to be adept at getting beneath the confusing signals of demeanor, at understanding that when Nervous Nelly overexplains and gets defensive, that's who she is—someone who overexplains and gets defensive. The police officer ought to be the person who sees the quirky, inappropriate girl in a culture far different from her own say [something inappropriate] and realize that she's just a quirky girl in a culture far different from her own. But that's not what we get. Instead, the people charged with making determinations of innocence and guilt seem to be as bad as or even worse than the rest of us when it comes to the hardest cases. ... [W]e have built a world that systematically discriminates against a class of people who, through no fault of their own, violate our ridiculous ideas about transparency. (pp. 185-186)

On the problem of sexual assault, particularly in a college setting:

[S]tudents were asked to list the measures they thought would be most effective in reducing sexual assault. At the top of that list they put harsher punishment for aggressors, self-defense training for victims, and teaching men to respect women more. How many thought it would be "very effective" if they drank less? Thirty-three percent. How many thought stronger restrictions on alcohol on campus would be very effective? Fifteen percent. These are contradictory positions. Students think it is a good idea to be trained in self-defense, and not such a good idea to clamp down on drinking. But what good is knowing the techniques of self-defense if you're blind drunk? Students think it's a really good idea if men respect women more. But the issue is not how men behave around women when they are sober. It is how they behave around women when they are drunk, and have been transformed by alcohol into a person who makes sense of the world around them very differently. (pp. 225-226)

On interrogation techniques:

One exercise involved crews of the bombers that carry nuclear weapons. Everything about their mission was classified. If they were to crash in hostile territory, you can imagine how curious their captors would be about the contents of their planes. The SERE program was supposed to prepare a flight crew for what might happen. [One exercise involved] one of the oldest tricks in the interrogation business: the interrogator threatens not the subject, but a colleague of the subject's. In [interrogation expert James Mitchell's] experience, men and women react very differently to this scenario. The men tend to fold. The women don't.

"If you are a female pilot and they said they were going to do something to the other airman, the attitude of a lot of them was, 'It sucks to be you,'" he said. "'You do your job, I'm going to do mine. I'm going to protect the secrets. I'm sorry this has happened to you, but you knew this when you signed up.'" Mitchell first saw this when he debriefed women who had been held as POWs during Desert Storm. They would drag those women out and threaten to beat them every time the men wouldn't talk. And [the women] were angry at the men for not holding out, and they said, "Maybe I would have gotten a beating, maybe I would have got sexually molested, but it would have happened one time. By showing them that the way to get the keys to the kingdom was to drag me out, it happened every time. So let me do my job. You do your job." (pp. 241-242)

The final two chapters shed some much-needed light on our current problems with law enforcement, making me more sympathetic to all sides.  Some intriguing studies have shown that we are not looking at crime problems in fine enough detail. It seems that everyone in a city knows the "bad neighborhoods" for crime, but it turns out there are not so much bad neighborhoods as bad blocks. In any given high-crime area, the majority of the territory is not a problem. Most of the crime occurs in a few, much smaller locations, and focussing police action in these areas can cut crime rates dramatically. But the aggressive policing that makes such a difference in the hot spots has been adopted in areas for which it is is totally inappropriate. (Recognize that I am greatly condensing and simplifying here.) On top of that, police officers are no better than the rest of us at making judgements about strangers—and yet their jobs, and their very lives, require them to do so, quickly and under conditions of great stress.

This has been a book about a conundrum. We have no choice but to talk to strangers, especially in our modern, borderless world. We aren't living in villages anymore. Police officers have to stop people they do not know. Intelligence officers have to deal with deception and uncertainty. Young people want to go to parties explicitly to meet strangers: that's part of the thrill of romantic discovery. Yet at this most necessary of tasks we are inept. We think we can transform the stranger, without cost or sacrifice, into the familiar and the known, and we can't. What should we do? (pp. 341-342)

We could start by no longer penalizing one another for defaulting to truth. If you are a parent whose child was abused by a stranger—even if you were in the room—that does not make you a bad parent. And if you are a university president and you do not jump to the worst-case scenario when given a murky report about one of your employees, that doesn't make you a criminal. To assume the best about another is the trait that has created modern society. Those occasions when our trusting nature gets violated are tragic. But the alternative—to abandon trust as a defense against predation and deception—is worse. (p. 342)

What is required of us is restraint and humility. (p. 343)

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, August 2, 2021 at 9:03 am | Edit
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Your story about the teacher and the bullied child reminded me of another one involving your mother and a teacher: one of your brothers (David, I think) was coming home from kindergarten complaining about how boring it was. When your mother talked to the teacher, she was assured that David was clearly not bored since he wasn't taking out his frustration by hitting other children.



Posted by Kathy Lewis on Monday, August 02, 2021 at 8:12 pm

Thanks, I'd forgotten that. And I'll bet David has, too.



Posted by SursumCorda on Tuesday, August 03, 2021 at 8:26 am
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