Talking to Strangers

talking to strangers cover



This week, we would like to recommend a book to our subscribers. Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell will make you think and, in some ways, doubt your ability to evaluate strangers.

In the fields of law enforcement, intelligence and security we constantly engage and interact with strangers. We are trained to assess them, their motives and the risk and threat they may pose. Gladwell examines our ability to assess strangers and draws a convincing conclusion that we are inherently flawed at doing so.

He contends that most of us are hard wired to trust strangers and accept them as truth tellers. Trust, after all, is what has kept our society and economy working. Our trust in systems and individuals allows us to exchange goods and services, drive on the roads and live more or less peacefully with our fellow humans. Constant distrust, on the other hand, would likely generate panic and emotional stress, a lack of productivity and some isolation.

In his book Blink (2005) Gladwell also examined how we make decisions. We can find patterns in situations and behaviors based on very few data points/narrow experience. Slow deliberation and caution are not required. These snap judgments occur in our adaptive unconscious, where mental tricks operate beyond our awareness.

In Talking to Strangers, he returns to the subject of decision making and the unconscious and continues to address the conditions that inform decision making. Gladwell reexamines some very famous cases of misjudgment of threat. For example, how former British Prime Minister Nevil Chamberlin failed to assess Hitler’s intentions before WW2. And how Wall Street analysts did not recognize Bernie Madoff’s elaborate Ponzi scheme. At the heart of these epic failures was an eagerness to trust and a preference to avoid potentially grim realities.

To support his point, Gladwell provides compelling statistical data to illustrate how often decisions made by judges, intelligence agents and police officers to trust or, distrust a stranger are flawed. Well-known case studies demonstrate how we fail to correctly assess scammers, spies, pedophiles and other individuals who pose a clear threat to us and to society. The assessment failure occurs despite abundant and compelling evidence and indicators. Through cognitive dissonance and our inherent human tendency to trust we are led to reject the notion that the person in front of us is a clear threat.

Naturally, our cognitive assessments and corresponding actions are heavily influenced by culture and our perception of what is normal. The book describes how each of us evaluates facial expressions and behavioral cues in different ways, and this is especially true across cultures. The cultural differences render us susceptible to misjudge. What one person experiences as strange behavior and a potential threat or an admission of guilt, would for someone else be merely odd or abnormal behavior. Since we tend to evaluate other people through our own prism of social and personal norms, we are bound to make mistakes and quickly blame or exonerate based on those biases. The author contends that while most of us think we are good at assessing strangers, the data paints a different picture. We are about 50% wrong/right in our assessments…it’s basically a coin toss.

Another example of factors that influence decision making is around how people decide to commit a crime or suicide. Gladwell argues that a person ready to commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge is likely to give up on the idea of taking his own life if he can’t do it, specifically, by jumping and from that specific location. Location and modus operandi trump the inclination to commit suicide. Likewise, a criminal may give up his criminal activities if he is forced to move or alter his MO. While this sounds counterintuitive, Gladwell offers very compelling studies and data to proves this assertion.

Gladwell’s theme corresponds well with Chameleon’s Predictive Profiling methodology. Predictive Profiling uses deductive reasoning to assess suspicion, threat, and risk through a process of refutation. That is in contrast with most threat and risk assessment methodologies out there that use inductive reasoning. When using inducting reasoning, we tend to develop a theory around the person we evaluate. And that theory is bound to be influenced by our fears, apprehensions, politics and personality – these are the basis for most of our misjudgments. This book recommends administering a healthy dose of doubt, just what the doctor ordered.

Lastly, Gladwell offers good insights on the challenges of making judgment calls about people and situations. For one, he reminds us of the most important tool security, law enforcement and intelligence professionals have at their disposal: “doubt as a working assumption.” We must adopt the right amount of doubt to help us see threat clearly when it presents itself. And we should also doubt our ability to assess, and in so doing, will probably become better at making decisions.

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