My notes on Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers


If you don’t like non-fiction, you might like Malcolm Gladwell’s books. They’re psychology books that turn experiments and anecdotes into arguments for why the world works the way does–but in ways that slightly turn your view of the world upside down. There are people who love him, and then there are people who give him heat for not being scientific enough, but I can’t help it–I think his arguments are fascinating. These are the three main points he makes in his newest book, Talking to Strangers.

(Side note: Some of these sentences are plagarphrased, and a few are straight-up plagarized. The only parts that are not from the book are the two parts that start with, “for example.”)

1. Default to Truth

We have a default to truth instinct, which means that our instinct is to believe people. We believe people not because we don’t have doubts, but because we don’t have enough doubts.

For example, I was texting my friends, and I noticed that two of them were texting kind of strangely. One of them said my name in a message even though he normally never does that. The other one said he didn’t know what Ultimate Frisbee was even though he is someone who definitely would. Both of them were using word choice that felt a bit off to how they normally talked.

After a while, the two of them revealed that they had switched phones and were texting as each other. My immediate reaction was DUH, all the clues were there! Dang it, why hadn’t I realized that the name popping up on my screen wasn’t the same as the person typing the words? It was that pesky default to truth instinct.

Unless you’re Harry Markopolos. Then it’s a different story.

Markopolos was a regular accountant who discovered that Bernie Madoff’s company was a huge Ponzi scheme. It started when he noticed one small thing that was off in the numbers. If that had been me, I would’ve been like hm? for a milisecond and then forgotten about it.

Instead, he decided to keep investigating the company until he came to the conclusion that the entire organization was a scam. He had the evidence, but for years, everybody thought he was crazy. The government, businesses, financial analysts, everybody. No one would listen–(which is also the title his book, by the way). In the end, he was right. He was the brilliant genius, and the rest of the world were fools for not listening.

When you’re Harry Markopolos, there’s no threshold for when doubts become disbelief.

After reading that story, I was like, I want to be like Markopolos! He’s so cool. He’s a real-life Sherlock Holmes. But then Malcolm Gladwell persuaded me otherwise. He made the argument that the trade-off for trusting people is generally good–not always, because people still get really hurt because of deception, but overall it’s better than if it was the other way around.

If we most of us were Markopoloses, people wouldn’t get conned, but society would also not be able to function the way it does. Because most us default to trust, you believe that I’m actually a teenage girl and not that often described forty-year-old man living in his mom’s basement—uhh, at least I hope you do.

2. Illusion of Transparency

Mismatched people are people who react in ways that aren’t “normal”, and because their reactions seem wrong, people don’t believe them.

For example, episode 581 of the podcast, This American Life, is called “Anatomy of a Doubt“. In Part 1, they tell the true story of Marie. (This story is also the basis of the Netflix show, Unbelievable.) At eighteen, Marie was sexually assaulted, but afterwards, the police and even the people closest to her doubted her story because the way she talked and behaved afterwards didn’t seem to match the seriousness of the situation. This was an important reason why her case was eventually dropped and not reopened again until a similar incident happened years later.

We struggle with mismatched people because we expect people to wear their emotions on their face. When they don’t, our assumption is that there’s something wrong with their behavior, not that something might be wrong with our expectations.

3. Displacement vs. Coupling

In the 1960s in the UK, ovens used carbon monoxide, and people were turning on the fumes as a way committing suicide. (Carbon monoxide kills you if you breathe it in for too long.) After a few years, the manufacturers switched the oven fuel from carbon monoxide to a different type of non-poisonous gas.

The displacement theory would predict that the suicide rate during this period stayed about the same. People who wanted to commit suicide used the oven fumes because it was convenient, but after that stopped being option anymore, people who wanted to commit suicide would’ve found another method.

Except that’s not what happened. The rate of suicides in the country increased when the carbon monoxide ovens were most in use and decreased when they went out of use. That’s the idea of coupling. Coupling says that suicide and behavior are attached to both internal and external circumstance.

(If you’re like, I’ve listened to enough Planet Money to be wary of people making coincidences into correlations and correlations into causations, here’s a paper on it. It’s one of those research papers that feels overwhelming, but the examples in part three are interesting.)

The point is

We think we’re better at reading people than we are, but we’re actually very limited in our ability to decipher other human beings.

Have you ever read a book by Malcolm Gladwell–or listened to his awesome podcast?
What do you think of his three arguments?
Do you think pyschology is interesting?

3 thoughts on “My notes on Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers”

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