The rap about Malcolm Gladwell in exalted literary and intellectual circles is that he writes about social psychology but isn’t a social psychologist. Usually, though, the criticism is less polite. Although his books are bestsellers and widely cited in public discourse—think especially of The Tipping Point—critics are sometimes savage. Gladwell’s response is that he is simply a storyteller (and by all accounts a very good one). He himself might write a book about the disparity between his readers’s and his critics’s views of his work. Chances are, Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, will add fuel to the debate.
Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell (2019) 401 pages
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But I find myself comfortably in Gladwell’s camp. For decades, I’ve been convinced that we don’t glean our greatest insights from specialized academics. Rather, they tend to come from generalists like Malcolm Gladwell, who range comfortably across the borders of university disciplines and find their material in accounts of recent events. And I’ve found myself reinforced in that view as I read Talking to Strangers.
Gladwell sets out to solve two questions:
- “Puzzle Number One: Why can’t we tell when the stranger in front of us is lying to our face?” and
- “Puzzle Number Two: How is it that meeting a stranger can sometimes make us worse at making sense of that person than not meeting them?”
Familiar examples from the past in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book
In his response to both these questions, Gladwell cites familiar examples from the past as well as (sometimes controversial) research in social psychology. And some of his examples are familiar, such as Neville Chamberlain’s tragic misreading of Adolf Hitler’s intentions, the gullibility of the subjects in Stanley Milgram’s “obedience” experiment at Stanford, Bernie Madoff’s ability to fool thousands of professional investors and regulators for many years, and the stubborn insistence of Italian police in the absence of any evidence that Amanda Knox had committed murder. (Today we might want to add the case of Jeffrey Epstein.) Others are less familiar, including two dramatic examples of how the CIA turned a blind eye for years on end to spies in its midst. These are all high-stakes case studies. In every one, someone failed to perceive an obvious truth—and the consequences were grim.
Liars don’t behave like liars on television sitcoms
Why? In some cases, Gladwell believes, the explanation lies in what one researcher calls “default to truth.” We human beings tend to give others the benefit of the doubt. In other cases, the problem is “transparency.” We believe we can read other people’s intentions simply by observing their facial expressions and body language. Yet, as another scientist wrote, “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.'” Gladwell adds, “We think liars in real life behave like liars [on television sitcoms]—telegraphing their internal states with squirming and darting eyes. This is—to put it mildly—nonsense. Liars don’t look away.”
Gladwell also ventures into explaining the dynamics of intoxication and “enhanced interrogation techniques.” In neither case can we depend on the testimony rendered in court or at Guantanamo Bay. Here, too, Gladwell cites both anecdotal accounts and rigorous research.
Will Malcolm Gladwell’s next book explain Donald Trump?
All this is interesting, but does it get us any closer to understanding how millions of Americans could continue to support Donald Trump in the face of abundant evidence that he is a liar, a racist, a crook, and a sexual predator? This is today’s real “stranger problem.” Maybe Malcolm Gladwell has to write another book to tackle that puzzle.
For further reading
In past years, for the most part before I began this blog, I read most of Malcolm Gladwell’s books. And I’ve reviewed one of them, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. My review is at Disability can be a great advantage.
I’ve also reviewed an excellent book about Stanley Milgram and the Obedience Experiment he conducted at Stanford, The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram by Thomas Blass. You’ll find the review at Stanley Milgram put social psychology on the map.
You might also be interested in Science explained in 10 excellent popular books (plus dozens of others) and The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, by Michael Lewis, reviewed at Michael Lewis on the science of decision-making.
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.