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Talking to Strangers

Malcolm Gladwell • Rating: 10 / 10
Talking to Strangers

My initial gut reaction to seeing a title like “Talking to Strangers” was that it’s some kind of another boring “best seller” on how to meet people or whatever. Fortunately, it has nothing in common with this book.

”Talking to Strangers” explores the fundamental mistakes in our perception of others through fascinating real-life stories. It shows how much we can misinterpret human behavior because of our default settings and the tragic consequences this can cause.

Why did Chamberlain completely misread Hitler’s character and mistakenly thought that he successfully prevented a World War II? How a Cuban double agent has infiltrated Defense Intelligence Agency (sister organization to CIA) for years, without a grain of suspicion? And finally, how could a routine traffic stop lead to the arrested driver commiting suicide shortly after?

These are just several thought-provoking stories out of many more that are deconstructed in “Talking to Strangers”.

I’ve long been looking for a book like this and I couldn’t be happier to have read it. 10 out of 10.

My notes

We have a default to truth: our operating assumption is that the people we are dealing with are honest.

We start by believing, And we stop believing only when our doubts and misgivings rise to the point where we can no longer explain them away.

Default to truth becomes an issue when we are forced to choose between two alternatives, one of which is likely and the other of which is impossible to imagine. Is Ana Montes the most highly placed Cuban spy in history, or was Reg Brown just being paranoid? Default to truth biases us in favor of the most likely interpretation. Scott Carmichael believed Ana Montes, right up to the point where believing her became absolutely impossible.

“Her eyes didn’t seem to show any sadness, and I remember wondering if she could have been involved,” one of Meredith Kercher’s friends said. Amanda Knox heard years of this— perfect strangers pretending to know who she was based on the expression on her face. “There is no trace of me in the room where Meredith was murdered,” Knox says, at the end of the Amanda Knox documentary. “But you’re trying to find the answer in my eyes… You’re looking at me. Why? These are my eyes. They’re not objective evidence.”

None of this makes sense. Alcohol is a powerful drug. It disinhibits. It breaks down the set of constraints that hold our behavior in check. That’s why it doesn’t seem surprising that drunkenness is so overwhelmingly linked with violence, car accidents, and sexual assault.

The myopia theory was first suggested by psychologists Claude Steele and Robert Josephs, and what they meant by myopia is that alcohol’s principal effect is to narrow our emotional and mental fields of vision. It creates, in their words, “a state of shortsightedness in which superficially understood, immediate aspects of experience have a disproportionate influence on behavior and emotion.” Alcohol makes the thing in the foreground even more salient and the thing in the background less significant. It makes short-term considerations loom large, and more cognitively demanding, longer-term considerations fade away.

That’s inhibition-thinking: alcohol will unlock my good mood. But that’s plainly not what happens. Sometimes alcohol cheers us up. But at other times, when an anxious person drinks they just get more anxious. Myopia theory has an answer to that puzzle: it depends on what the anxious, drunk person is doing. If he’s at a football game surrounded by rabid fans, the excitement and drama going on around him will temporarily crowd out his pressing worldly concerns. The game is front and center. His worries are not. But if the same man is in a quiet corner of a bar, drinking alone, he will get more depressed. Now there’s nothing to distract him. Drinking puts you at the mercy of your environment. It crowds out everything except the most immediate experiences.

Students think it’s a really good idea if men respect women more. But the issue is not how men behave around women when they are sober. It is how they behave around women when they are drunk, and have been transformed by alcohol into a person who makes sense of the world around them very differently. Respect for others requires a complicated calculation in which one party agrees to moderate their own desires, to consider the longer-term consequences of their own behavior, to think about something other than the thing right in front of them. And that is exactly what the myopia that comes with drunkenness makes it so hard to do.