Talking to Strangers: Book Review

September 18, 2019

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About The People We Don't Know (2019), Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell is on my list to read as soon as a new book comes out. The title sounded uninteresting, but once again he develops an interesting thesis for why this book is a must-read. As I understand it, the takeaway is people may not act like we think they should and therefore we should act with restraint and humility; no grand solutions. The scary part is the argument that people in key positions (judges, police, intelligence community) are poor at this and, as a consequence, are often incompetent at their jobs. The individual essays are fun reads, provide information and insight, but don't seem to fit nicely into an overall conclusion. It's complicated. Gladwell begins with the Sandra Bland arrest and suicide, a tragic and unnecessary event involving an emotionally fragile (black) woman and a bad cop. He also ends the book with a more in-depth analysis of the Bland case. Like a suspense novel, he ends chapters on cliff-hangers to be answered later. The overall takeaway is to "talk to strangers with caution and humility" (location 2936). "Don't look at the stranger and jump to conclusions. Look at the stranger's world" (location 3269).


Mistakes with strangers: first is the inability to make sense of strangers as individuals; inability to understand context in which stranger is operating. People can be "mismatched." Specific places matter (AIDS happened in a small number of census tracks--certain kinds of people in certain places; majority of police calls happen in specific street segments.) Tim Levine's truth-default theory becomes a key insight.


Cortes met Aztec ruler Montezuma in 1519 in the giant and clean Tenochtitlan and they spoke through a couple of interpreters (that is, a total of four languages). What could possibly go wrong? Cortes misinterpreted the language of this foreign emperor. What it all meant has been subject to analysis ever since, but of course it ultimately meant the murder of Montezuma and the conquest by the Spanish--and perhaps the death of 20 million Aztecs (not to mention the hundreds of millions native Americans killed by disease). As Gladwell summed it up: "The modern world is not two brothers feuding for control of the Ottoman Empire. It is Cortes and Montezuma struggling to understand each other through layers of translators. Talking to Strangers is about why we are so bad at that act of translation" (location 170). 


Chapter 1: Fidel's Revenge. "The Cubans fooled the CIA, an organization that takes the problem of understanding strangers very seriously" (location 282). CIA senior officer Aldrich Ames worked for the Soviet Union. Chapter 2: Getting to Know the Fuhrer. Neville Chamberlain as British Prime Minister met directly with Hitler to avert war. "The only people in England who spent any real time with Hitler before the war were British aristocrats friendly to the Nazi cause" (location 339).  Chamberlain negotiated with Hitler, was the only allied leader spending significant time with him, and fell under his spell in one of the great follies of World War II. "Perhaps Chamberlain and his cohort, for whatever private reason, were determined to see the Hitler they wanted to see, regardless of the evidence ... the same puzzling pattern crops up everywhere" (location 411). [Hilter was mismatched.] Judges decide on bail, based on face-to-face meetings to "read" the character of those charged. Of course, computers with much less information make better decisions. The difference was particularly obvious for "high risk" defendants flagged by the computer, almost half of which judges released. "We have CIA officers who cannot make sense of their spies, judges who cannot make sense of their defendants, and prime ministers who cannot make sense of their adversaries" (location 504). Illusion of asymmetric insight: conviction that we know others better than they know us. ... "We think we can easily see into the hearts of others based on the flimsiest of clues" (location 555). ["Chamberlain should have stayed home and read Mein Kampf" (location 2926)].  


Chapter 3: The Queen of Cuba. Ana Montes worked for the DIA and spied for Cuba. She was a passionate Marxist. DIA people needed a trigger out of TDT, but it had to be high.


Psychologist Tim Levine: simple experiment giving students "a partner" to answer questions and the partner would encourage cheating when the proctor left the room. They cheat about 30% of the time. They were taped being asked about cheating. Later, others were asked to determine who lied. Some were obvious, others not so much. Subject correctly identified liars 56% of the time. (Similar experiments by others had similar results.) Experts also were terrible. Levine has "Truth-Default Theory" (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" (location 813). To snap out of TDT requires a trigger: "We start by believing. And we stop believing only when our doubts and misgivings rise to the point we can no longer explain them away" (location 827). Levine: Duped: Truth-Default Theory and the Social Science of Lying and Deception, 2019. Levine (Chapter 4) lies are rare, told by a subset of people; therefore, communication is fairly efficient. [Chapter 7]: Senders are subjects who lied or told the truth; judges determine whose lying; students, FBI agents, CIA, lawyers are terrible: all truth-biased; crucial clues in the moment are usually missed (but perhaps obvious later). Judges got certain groups 80% rights and others 80% wrong. Well-spoken, confident people versus nervous, shifty, stammering people; most thought "gaze aversion" how to spot a liar ("Blushing Sally"). We get right those who match based on the way they look. We get it wrong when people are mismatched.


Stanley Milgram's obedience experiment in 1961, to shock "learner" for wrong answer up to 450 volts--65% administered max dose. Apparent moral: people do what they're told by authority. Levine: experiment as a theatrical production and fairly transparent as hoaxes go. But most people fell for it--they defaulted to the truth. Over 40% thought something was odd, but not enough to trigger them from truth-default. 


Chapter 4: The Holy Fool. Bernie Madoff story. Renaissance Technologies identified irregularities in 2003 (none of the trading strategies made sense), but not enough doubts to trade out and notify the SEC. Harry Markopolos did identify Madoff as a crook and notified the SEC on several occasions [note: Markopolis say auditors as incompetent or crooks]. He saw a stranger as a fraudster, based on math. [5-6% of revenue lost to theft, Association of Certified Fraud Examiners; 40% of health-care revenues lost to fraud or waste.] Madoff acted confident, a "mismatch He was a liar with the demeanor of an honest man" (location 1963). Markopolis had no threshold for disbelief. 


Chapter 5: Case Stuty: The Boy in the Shower. Jerry Sandusky case; in Galdwell's telling, beyond showering with boys, there is little evidence of wrongdoing. However, it sent Sandusky to jail, along with Penn State officials who had little to go on except ambiguous reports. This was compared to Larry Nassar, where the evidence was overwhelming. As a doctor, Nassar had more ability to act as a pedophile, with only limited suspicion. As one victim later said: "I believed in you always untiI couldn't anymore" (default to truth based on overwhelming evidence). 


Chapter 6: The Friends Fallacy. People are expected to act in certain ways, and Glawell uses an episode of Friends to prove the point (including facial action coding by Jennifer Fugate; begins with "Pan Am smile"). "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" (location 1695). [Other cultures behave and look different; Trobrianders in the Solomon Sea could only comprehend a "smiling face."] Key point; transparency is a myth--too much watching Friends. "When we confront a stranger, we have to substitute an idea--a stereotype--for direct experience. And that stereotype is wrong all too often" (location 1814); why computers do a better job than judge. "The unobservables create noise, no signal" (location 1836). Stranger strategies flawed and we tolerate lots of error. 


Chapter 7: A (Short) Explanation of the Amanda Know Case. When her roommate was killed in Italy, she didn't behave as expected; therefore, she was considered guilty although the evidence did not support this conclusion. She was mismatched  (a "Nervous Nelly"). "With strangers, we're intolerant of emotional responses that fall outside expectations" (location 2017). Levine on law-enforcement agents: perfect on "matched senders;" 20% right on mismatched senders; on sincere liars, 14%. They are a group that needs to be right on mismatched senders. "Is this part of the reason for wrongful convictions? Is the legal system constitutionally incapable of delivering justice to the mismatched?" (location 2047).


Chapter 8: Case Study: The Fraternity Party. What is rape when both parties are drunk and seemingly willing? "Alcohol is a powerful drug. It disinhibits. It breaks down the set of constraints that hold our behavior in check. That's why it doesn't seem surprising that drunkenness is so overwhelmingly linked with violence, car accidents, and sexual assault" (location 2328). Myopia theory (Steele and Josephs): alcohol's principal effect is to narrow our emotional and mental fields of vision, creating 'a state of shortsightedness in which superficially understood, immediate aspects of experience have a disproportionate influence on behavior and emotion. ... short-term considerations loom large" (location 2335). "Drunkenness has its greatest effect in situations of 'high conflict'" (location 2344). "Alcohol: The effects begin in the frontal lobes, the part of our brain behind our forehead that governs attention, motivation, planning, and learning. The first drink dampens activity in that region. ...It hits the reward centers of the brain, the areas that govern euphoria, and gives them a little jolt. It finds it way into the amygdala. The amygdala's job is to tell us how to react to the world around us. ... The combination of those three effects is where myopia comes from. ... Alcohol also finds its way to your cerebellum, at the very back of the brain, which is involved in balance and coordination. ... Alcohol hits the hippocampus ... responsible for forming memories" (location 2422). 


Chapter 9: KSM: What Happens When the Stranger is a Terrorist? What about torture for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed? Air Force training for SERE (survival, evasion resistance, escape): sleep depredation, walling, water-boarding. Problem of uncertainty: "I don't know what the right answer is." Prefrontal cortex shuts down. Information obtained under stress likely inaccurate or misleading (and sources wouldn't know it). KSM made first confession in 2007: confession to stop torture? Claim credit for terror? 


  Chapter 10: Sylvia Plath, poet suffering from depression, who kills herself after her husband leaves, sticking her head in the oven when Britain used a certain type of coal gas (it doesn't work with natural gas, although the house may blow up); it was painless, did not make a mess, and many woman in Britain did the same. The idea that people would simply use another method for suicide is called displacement. The alternative theory is called coupled to a particular context, the act of depressed people at a particular moment of extreme vulnerability combined with a particular method (pills, handgun, jumping off a bridge--1,500 off the Golden Gate Bridge). 

Crime: half of crime in one city happened in 3.6% of city's blocks: Law of Crime Concentration (place, context). 40,000 Americans kill themselves each year, about half by handguns.


Chapter 11: Case Study: The Kansas City Experiments. How police should operate. A hundred years ago O.W. Wilson came up with "preventative patrols" (constant unpredictable motion).George Kelling: experiment with alternative methods. Methods not very successful. Lawrence Sherman and guns. Talk to all residents respectfully in select, high-crime areas, but residents didn't help police (and did not leave the house). Kansas City experiment; give police hundreds of reasons to stop cars (get around 4th Amendment against unreasonable searches and seizures), but in high crime areas (District 144). This approach cut gun crime in half. DEA trained thousands of local police to use Kansas City style, resulting in millions of traffic stops (55,000 a day). [Related to coupling.] Problem was this method was designed to be used in specific high-crime areas, not all over. Also, police were bad at identifying likely criminal suspects. 


Chapter 12: Sandra Bland. Why did Encinia pull her over? Not a high crime area, he misread all the signals. His take was, according to his training, all signals pointed to a dangerous criminal ("Encinia was a tone-deaf bully," location 3556 ; "this is dangerously flawed thinking, humans are not transparent," location 3673). Sandra Bland was mismatched; she had been stopped 10 previous time by police, resulting of thousands of dollars of fines. She had psychological issues--and in crisis when jailed. Ferguson, Missouri was reviewed next, which used the Kansas City plan to excess ("stop as many people as possible for as many reasons as possible"), particularly on blacks when the police force was mainly white. Michael Brown was shot dead and soon came the riots, mainly against the police tactics. Innocent people don't like to be stopped and treated like criminals. Suggestions: "We could start by no longer penalizing one another for defaulting to truth" (location 3806). "We should also accept the limits of our ability to decipher strangers" (location 3811). Plus, when things go bad, we blame the stranger. It's complicated; we need restraint and humility. 


This was a fun read, but frustrating to decipher meaning (which is probably obvious from my review). Big issues are introduced (like police behavior or intelligence gathering), but no obvious solutions except to be more thoughtful and realize these are complicated issues. Single issues or cases (e.g., Sandra Bland) come up multiple times with additional information. I expected an attempt at solutions (e.g., judges should ..., police should ...; artificial intelligence ...), but none was forthcoming. 


There are all kinds of areas that seem to fit "talking to strangers" which could have been used (marketing in general and specific cases like drugs, healthcare in general or finance). Not a big problem, others can expand his thesis.


Update: I saw Gladwell at the Texas Book Festival with my wife and daughter. I was somewhat disappointed where the discussion went (the moderator was interested in the intoxicated sex part), plus none of the audience asking questions seemed to have read the book. An interesting quote: "Populists tell false stories well; it is up to the writer (or politician) to tell a true story better." He did emphasize the importance of trusting people: it works most of the time. The downside is we get burned by sociopaths. 


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© 2016 Gary Giroux