Malcolm Gladwell writes about the mystique of decoding strangers and how we can get it horribly wrong
In 1938, Neville Chamberlain, then prime minister of England, went to Germany to meet Adolf Hitler to mediate on his political designs of starting a war. After meeting him, the PM was convinced that the double handshake meant all was well and there was jubilation back home. Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary, had a similar experience, and while the ambassador Nevile Henderson thought Hitler was insane, they firmly believed that war was not on his agenda. But history says otherwise. The message is that when we meet strangers, we can never gauge them right, as it is a challenge to understand people. Misreading them can have disastrous consequences.
Malcom Gladwell, in another remarkable book Talking to Strangers, takes us through what can be called an intellectual adventure into the darker side of human nature. He starts the book in a very interesting manner where he talks of a Sandra Bland, who is told to pull over by a white policeman for missing a light. There is a conversation which starts off gently and moves to another level where the cop arrests her for what seems to be an innocuous action. The woman commits suicide in jail three days later.
Gladwell bases his theory of not being able to gauge strangers on three simple thoughts — humans tend to ‘default to truth’, are never transparent and have to be judged against the context in which we live.
We can never make out when people are lying and always tend to default to the truth. Judges are in no better a situation as they take decisions based on what the lawyers argue in court. By looking at the face of the accused, the judge thinks that she has got the plot right. A parallel decision by an artificial intelligence-based programming in the US shows that machines make better decisions than humans, which is quite revealing as it means that often human judgments are incorrect.
It doesn’t stop at prime ministers and judges going wrong. Gladwell narrates the story of an intelligence agent, Ana Montes, who served in the US. It was known only after several years that she was a counterintelligence agent for Fidel Castro. Therefore, it is hard to detect how people behave as we always believe that the stranger is speaking the truth, which is not always the case.
Not doing so can be disastrous as we can take brash decisions. For example, Gladwell argues that Bernie Madoff, who ran the largest Ponzi scheme ever, was revered by all and the only person who suspected all along was Harry Markopolos, who, as a rule, suspected everyone — what is called a ‘holy fool’. But having holy fools in the market, though essential, can mean the end of Wall Street if everyone works on suspicion. There is a need to have a tradeoff between truth-default and the risk of deception.
Gladwell narrates a number of such stories to prove his point and the one on Khalid Sheikh Mohammad is quite interesting. KSM, as he was known, was instrumental in the 9/11 blasts and was arrested. Various torture measures were used to get the truth out of him, including sleep deprivation, walling and waterboarding, and quite expectedly none of them worked. Finally, they got him to confess in court and he did so admitting there was no duress. But the proceedings were criticised as insupportable due to confessions gained under torture. A 2008 decision by the United States Supreme Court also questioned the legality of the methods used to gain such admissions. On August 30, 2019, a military judge set a trial date of January 11, 2021, for Mohammed’s death penalty trial. Hence, the truth about a stranger is not hard and obvious, and we have to accept that there are limits.
Gladwell reveals an interesting statistic that in most countries, more than 50% of crimes occur in 3-5% of the land area, which does not really shift when police patrolling is increased, as there are factors at work controlling migration. He extends this fact to the measures put in place to curb crime by having police officers stop and check cars for guns, which actually helped curb incidences of violence. This then leads to the story from where the book started — the case of Sandra Bland. The cop meets a stranger and given the number plate and the nervousness exhibited, assumed something was amiss with her. The woman thought she was being targeted because of race. The altercation leads to raised voices and probably some physical use of force, which leads to the arrest and then suicide. The three rules of default to truth, transparency and context all created differing scenarios leading to the tragedy, as it shows that one can never decipher strangers.
Gladwell has the knack to knock at the darker sides of events and human behaviour and go behind why we behave the way we do. Experiments in psychological behaviour are often used to test his hypothesis, but hips powers of observation and interpretation continue to enchant the reader, which makes this book a must read once again.
The author is chief economist, CARE Ratings