Revising Our Assumptions About People — A Review of “Talking to Strangers”

“Talking to Strangers” is a social psychology study of how we make the wrong assumptions about people. Its principal caution is that “strangers are not easy.” Citing studies that show quick we are to make snap judgments about others , using rules that we would not apply to ourselves, Gladwell walks through three major problems, each of which he illustrates with historical figures and current events.

Talking to Strangers

The first problem is our “default to truth” — the idea that despite what we might say, we begin by believing or assuming we know someone and what makes her tick. We are often overconfident in our assessments. Here, Gladwell invokes British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, whom history has assigned as a far-too-credulous dupe of Hitler. But Chamberlain was an intelligent and seasoned politician and diplomat. How did he fall prey to the earnest personal reassurances he received in meetings with Hitler, despite the warlord’s public actions to the contrary? By contrast, Winston Churchill never met Hitler once, but through observing his actions and reading his words, had a clear bead on the perils of Nazism and of Hitler’s ambitions from the start. Chamberlain overestimated his ability to judge people, and “defaulted to truth;” over several personal meetings with Hitler, he had lots of opportunity to observe and assess him, and believed in his ability to read people. But as Gladwell points out, Chamberlain would have been better off just staying at home and reading Mein Kampf.

As I read, I thought about how many times a day we, as lawyers and judges, do the same: interviewing witnesses and clients, deposing opposing parties, and all the while, constructing and reconstructing motives and motivations. We have to do so, but “Talking to Strangers” makes us aware of some cognitive flaws in our approach and how we might do better.

The lesson is to be more aware of our early judgments and what they are based upon, and to regularly revisit the labels we may place on the parties to disputes. Especially if we have made an early credibility determination, we can regularly ask whether new evidence should change our assessment, or whether it still holds true.

The second cognitive flaw is the “illusion of transparency,” which causes us to believe that people’s expressions, appearance and movement tell us what they are thinking.

We use lots of heuristics and conventional wisdom to make these judgments, chief among them judging expressions, tone of voice, and body language. Yet, ware far more confident in our ability to “read” people than we should be. A mountain of data proves that even those considered experts in credibility assessment, among them law enforcement, do not fare well in detecting liars. Complicating this problem is that how expressions are interpreted differs, sometimes dramatically, across cultures.

Certainly, there are many people who conform to certain expectations about what expressions mean — who are, in fact, very transparent. Gladwell suggests we could watch the sitcom “Friends” with the volume turned down and know most of what the characters think. But there are important exceptions, and he uses the Amanda Knox criminal proceedings as an example; in the investigation and trial into the murder of her roommate, Knox did not conform to expectations about what an innocent college student would do, and so prosecutors made assumptions about her guilt, with confirmation bias kicking in to then filter out contrary facts.

Being aware of the illusion of transparency, and constantly reevaluating our assumptions, is another check on misjudgment.

The third set of misreckonings about people come when we ignore the context: how the time and place that behavior is occurring influences action and response. In other words, the environment itself often cues behaviors, pulls up sets of programming, and influences decisions in ways we would not expect—at least not unless we dig deeper. In one case study, Gladwell shows that the suicide of poet Sylvia Plath, who inhaled carbon monoxide from a kitchen oven, occurred at time when suicides by that means were spiking. Ovens with “town gas” had just been introduced in Britain, and they provided an easy and painless way for people to act on thoughts of suicide. When the composition of gas was changed, the rate of suicide by that means dropped appreciably.

The other major case study on context is of the tragic 2015 arrest of motorist Sandra Bland in Texas. A routine traffic stop quickly escalated into a confrontational exchange and arrest, and after a short time in custody, Ms. Bland took her own life. Rather than a routine example of overzealous law enforcement, though, Gladwell explains Bland’s own personal history, which understandably raised sensitivity to potential police mistreatment, and the officer’s own training, which at the time involved using frequent traffic stops as a way to screen for more serious crimes. Using this context, Gladwell carefully parses the interaction between the two to show how the escalation occurred and how it could have been avoided.

The upshot of both examples is a reframing of how we think about cause, and re-evaluation of our tendency to blame or assign a particular personal motivation in every case.

This section of the book led me to reflect on how critical context can be in litigation and trial: every set of facts or factual scenario carries with it some assumptions. How is a judge viewing the executive who leaves his former company with a hard drive? A predictable effort to pirate trade secrets or customers, or is there more, for example, a desire to take stored family photos that HR was well-aware of? When a jury hears about a product that looks identical to one covered by a patent, is the first reaction that there has been copying? Or is almost all of the technology industry standard and public domain, such that the patent has been or should be invalidated?

There is almost always additional context that we are well-served to consider and to bring out very early, before assumptions harden into beliefs. And in our interactions with opposing parties, with clients, and with witnesses, we need to be digging deeper, and constantly challenging our assumptions. As Gladwell says, we do well to remember that our search to understand the stranger has real limits.

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