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  • David Bloomfield

An evening of talking to strangers with Malcolm Gladwell

I’ve been looking forward to this for a very long time…

A special opportunity to spend some time in the company of Malcolm Gladwell and to hear his very deliberate and considered thoughts first hand.

The host of one of my most favourite podcasts (revisionist History) and author of the hugely successful books: Tipping Point, Outliers, David and Goliath, Blink, What The Dog Saw. This was an evening in which he spoke intimately about his new book Talking To Strangers, which explores the mistakes we all make in misreading those we don’t know.

Here’s what I learned from the talk

The paradox central to the book is that the thing that makes us good as human beings has a price. Our susception for deception is one of our biggest qualities… if you think about it, if you have a chance to pass on your genes you will find a warm and trusting partner and not somebody who is paranoid and suspicious, its what enables us to form relationships and build civil society.

The strategy of believing in people is the kind of world we want to live in, but every now and again we will make mistakes. It’s not a sign of what we haven’t done right but what we have done right.

A central component to this book looks at deception, which is captured through the stories of Cuban spies and the horrific story of Sandra Bland which has a moral narrative at its core. A heart breaking lesson in misunderstanding, Sandra Bland was a black woman in Texas who whilst leaving a job interview is stopped by the police, a heated debate soon follows, she is then dragged out of her car and arrested, its is whilst in custody a few days later that she hangs herself.

Gladwell summaries these stories and lessons around a few key components that underpin why we are so bad at reading strangers

Deception: the problem with deception is that it is with us not the deceiver. We tend to think of deception as something that only happens to other less intelligent people, we think of it as a one off and that the deceiver is a genius. These beliefs make us terrible at reading people and detecting lies and therefore leaves us open to deception

Mismatching: We always assume people are telling the truth. There are a portion of people that we always detect correctly and a portion of people we get wrong. The people that we misjudge are mismatches - their body language and actions don’t follow what we expect them to do. This is told through the case of Amanda Knox following the murder of her housemate Meredith Kercher in Perugia, Italy. Amanda Knox is awkward and she didn’t act the way we expect somebody should do in those circumstances and therefore we default to believing that she is harbouring a guilty secret. It questions how many prisoners falsely accused of crimes fall into the category of mismatches…

Coupling: How important context is in understanding behaviour. An example of coupling in action is that criminality is very closely linked to addresses, with various studies from around the world showing that over 50% of crimes take place in less than 2% of the blocks of a city, therefore proactive policing is only required and appropriate in the 2%, whereas in the case with Sandra bland and many others officers are applying the wrong policing in the wrong areas.

There are some people that have a special talents for detecting lies as told through the story of Harry Markopolos, they guy who discovered and identified that Bernie Madoff’s wealth management business was a Ponzi scheme. He found that Markopolos sees the extreme power in defaulting to truth and as a result thinks that everyone is a fraud. In fact he goes to extreme ends to confirm this and to share his findings, including printing out his dossier of evidence whilst wearing gloves as to avoid detection, placing the cache of documents in not 1 but 2 brown envelopes and wearing a disguise to travel to an event where the attorney general would be in attendance before handing his evidence over to one of his staff. These people see character and see through it, playing a very important role for society in times of crisis

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