Rossdavidh's Reviews > Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell
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it was amazing
bookshelves: white

So, Malcolm Gladwell is by now a big enough name as to be somewhat of a controversial topic; some people love his writing, others love to bash it. In addition, the story he has chosen to use to tie together many topics here, is the arrest and death of Sandra Bland, which is a case that arouses strong emotions, to say the least. It is characteristic of a Gladwell book, however, that in taking on an emotional and controversial topic, he is not trying to arouse the strongest emotions in the reader, but rather to enable us to think clearly and deeply about a topic where the raw emotional nature of the topic makes that difficult. I believe he succeeds.

In some ways, this book is the opposite of his earlier book, "Blink". While I think that book was somewhat unfairly caricatured as being pro-intuition, it is true that it detailed a number of different cases in which a person's immediate response, coming from the non-verbal and subconscious part of the brain, could prove superior to the rational side. Here, more than in "Blink", we are looking at the cases where intuition tends to steer us wrong. In particular, when talking to people we don't know.

There are other high-profile cases Gladwell looks at. Amanda Knox, who was charged with, and for several years imprisoned for, the murder of her roommate in Italy, despite the almost total lack of any evidence or plausible motive, is one such case. Bernie Madoff and Jerry Sandusky are two others, where people's intuitions failed the other way, and they believed when they should have been suspicious. We also look at the research which has been done on lying, and our ability to tell when other people are lying. As someone who has been not uncommonly considered odd or socially awkward throughout my life, especially when I was younger, it was enlightening to read about just how difficult it is for most people to believe that their intuitions about another person can be wrong.

It reminds one of the fact that humans are both quite fallible in their memory, and almost totally unwilling to believe that their memories could be incorrect. We are not especially good at telling when other people are lying, and we're also almost all unwilling to believe that we are not good at it. It's not so much the flaw, as the blind spot regarding that flaw, that is odd.

Gladwell surveys spying, and counterintelligence efforts to catch spies and double-agents, throughout the 20th century, to demonstrate amply that even people whose job requires them to tell who is lying and who is telling the truth, are no good at it. Therefore, inevitably, a typical police officer will not be good at it. We have something like 600,000+ police officers in America. If the intelligence community cannot find enough people who are able to reliably detect who is lying and who is not based on their hunches or intuitions, then there is no way the much larger law enforcement community is going to be able to. Yet, the way in which law enforcement is trained, encourages them to act as if they can tell who is "acting suspicious" and who is not. This is the kind of thinking that caused the Italian police to think they could tell that Amanda Knox was a murderer, and cause the CIA and other parts of the American intelligence community to think that they could tell who was working for Cuban or Soviet intelligence, and who wasn't.

I do have one quibble with the book, which is that he devotes a chapter to the work of Jarillo and Crivelli, who assert that emotional facial expressions are cultural, not universal. This may or may not be true, but it was interesting that at the same time I was reading a book by Frans de Waal in which he points out that many of the emotional facial expressions of chimpanzees and bonobos are similar to those of humans. Hmmm....so the emotional facial expressions used in the West are shared by other species, but not by other human cultures? It seems hard to believe, and given the rate of failed replication in social science studies, it seems like it would have been worth mentioning at least, that the conclusions of Jarillo and Crivelli are disputed, and other researchers have found emotional facial expressions to be comprehended across different cultures. Charles Darwin, who was present for encounters in South America and elsewhere with peoples who had very little contact with the West, believed most facial expressions to be comprehensible across cultures.

It's not a central point in the book, though, and it is at least clearly the case that we should not assume we can interpret the facial expressions of strangers who we meet, without error. Plenty of research has demonstrated that we don't have the ability we think we do, to know what the other person is thinking. So this particular point did not, for me, detract too much from the book, since it was interesting research that at least might be true, and it was relevant, but given all the many cases we have seen of social science failing to replicate, it seems somewhat of a needless diversion.

Another very informative subject for me was Gladwell's tracing of the evolution in police tactics that led to the escalation of traffic stops by police. I had heard of the "broken windows" theory of policing, but this was a different (although in some ways similar) strategy. Essentially, the idea is that if you do enough traffic stops, you will get enough opportunities to look into people's cars and see what they're up to, and if they are up to no good this will allow you to arrest them. In certain cases (e.g. very high crime areas, where the residents feel besieged), it might be worth it, but it was almost guaranteed to result in a situation like the arrest and subsequent death of Sandra Bland. Encouraging police officers to stop as many people as they can find a legal excuse to, and then follow their intuition as to whether this person is up to no good or not, is a bad policy. If it had not been her and State Trooper Brian Encinia, it would have been two other people clashing, with a similar outcome.

Which, really, is Gladwell's main point. It is not going to fix the relations between police and civilians, to find every police officer who handles things badly, and end their career. The system of thought which resulted in that kind of policing, is based on some faulty assumptions about human nature, and if they are not challenged and changed, then the names will change, but not the results.
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Reading Progress

May 25, 2019 – Shelved
May 25, 2019 – Shelved as: to-read
January 25, 2020 – Started Reading
February 4, 2020 – Shelved as: white
February 4, 2020 – Finished Reading

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