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  • Title: Talking To Strangers
  • Author: Malcolm Gladwell
  • Genre: Non-fiction
  • Publisher: Little Brown
  • Pages: 388

The thesis of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Talking To Strangers, is straightforward: It is that certain crime-reducing strategies adopted by police forces in the United States are based on psychological insights and yet turn out to be deeply flawed and even dangerous. It is these psychology-based crime-reduction techniques that led, in part, to the aggressive stopping of young African-Americans in the U.S. that in turn led to the disproportionate number of police shootings that gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement.

But to get to this useful and progressive conclusion, Gladwell meanders through history, telling stories of spy catchers and lie detectors, of Chamberlain being duped by Hitler, of the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal at Penn State University, of facial analysis of the actors on Friends. These stories range from scientific to anecdotal, and they are all interesting in their own right.

Gladwell’s inquiry into how we believe strangers – and why we might think they are lying – was driven by his curiosity about a famously sad case of a police stop gone wrong. In 2015 a young African-American woman named Sandra Bland was pulled over by a white police officer for failure to signal a lane change. She got indignant, he got mad, the whole thing escalated and she ended up in a jail cell, where she killed herself three days later.

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The audio recording of the encounter went viral and became part of the national conversation about police aggression against people of colour. Gladwell reproduces the whole exchange and analyzes it to determine in what way the officer was trained to misread the woman.

His explanation is largely based on the theories of psychologist Tim Levine, who described the “default to truth” in human interactions. This is simply that we expect people, in most situations, to be telling the truth. This is how spies and fraudsters get away with their capers. If we were automatically suspicious of everything and everyone, human interaction and commerce would effectively cease: We would be paralyzed. Levine says, “What we gain in exchange for being vulnerable to an occasional lie is efficient communication and social co-ordination.”

Author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell.

BRYAN DERBALLA/The New York Times News Service

Gladwell tells the fascinating story of an investment analyst called Harry Markopolos who suspected that fraudster Bernie Madoff was a fake long before anyone else did, and investigated him assiduously. No one would listen to Markopolos’s warnings. He collected his findings and, being a naturally non-trusting guy, afraid of repercussions, tried to pass them over to authorities anonymously. His cloak-and-dagger antics made sure that he was ignored. He ended up hiding in a house guarded by multiple locks and electronic surveillance. His unnatural suspiciousness had put him ahead of everyone else in uncovering the biggest Ponzi scheme in history, but it also paralyzed him. Gladwell says, “He sat at home, guns at the ready, while the rest of us went about our business.”

How does this relate to the police stop of Bland? It turns out that police departments across the United States had learned, after years of research, that the natural gullibility of people (the “default to truth” state) is unhelpful in preventing crime in high-crime areas. If police in those areas are actively suspicious of people – using every possible excuse to interrogate them, such as a missing tail light or seat belt or the faintest whiff of marijuana in their car – they make far more arrests in more serious matters.

(Gladwell doesn’t mention this, but you can see this practice in action on reality TV shows such as Live PD on A&E – in which almost every segment begins with an officer pulling someone over for not signalling or not having a seat belt. Then they search the car and find some weed.)

Officer Brian Encinia, who pulled over Bland, was trained to go against his human instinct: He was taught to not believe her, to suspect that everything she was doing was a ploy that held a violent intent.

The book, then, ends up as a plea to return to our natural state of gullibility, our “default to truth.” The consequences of this laxity would be twofold: We would still be victim to the occasional Russian mole or New York Ponzi artist, but fewer black Americans would be shot or unjustly imprisoned by the police.

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The great pleasure of this book, though, is not the clarity of this argument but its more-or-less relevant detours, the entertaining histories that sometimes only vaguely back up the thesis.

The stuff about how Cuban spy Ana Montes went unnoticed for years while getting ever higher in the upper levels of U.S. intelligence agencies is as fun as a novel. It illustrates the default-to-truth theory but is just as interesting if it doesn’t. The story of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton’s conspiratorial suicidal ideations is part of an even longer digression about how particular places and opportunities can trigger suicides as much as intent can.

This, plus a long and fascinating summary of how American student Amanda Knox was falsely accused of murder in Italy (prosecutors were convinced of her guilt from the outset because she behaved strangely), is all meant to illustrate the rather obvious fact that we can easily misinterpret the words of strangers when those strangers are out of their normal contexts.

It has become necessary to point out in any review of a Gladwell book that the author, now also a popular and successful podcaster, is subject to disdainful criticism from academics and other less populist intellectuals, who say he is a simplifier, an entertainer rather than a social scientist. These critiques are usually caustic and condescending in tone and they have the unmistakable tinge of envy about them.

And they miss the point. They say his musings are filled with factoids and anecdotes. But factoids and anecdotes are immensely entertaining. Gladwell’s writing is itself entertaining – it is clear and dramatic at the same time. The assumption that intellectual inquiry should not be entertaining comes from an academy hoping to maintain its authority behind a wall of jargon. Read this and disagree with it if you like; even that experience will be intriguing and diverting, and these are values we look for in books.

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