BOOK REVIEW: Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book uses a model that Gladwell has employed to great success in many books. That model goes like this: 1.) find some research findings that are counter-intuitive or otherwise in opposition to the consensus view (and preferably not well-known outside academia;) 2.) carefully select some fascinating real-world cases that seem to highlight said findings; 3.) skillfully present the cases in a highly readable and evocative narrative form, making surprising reveals for maximum effect.
In this case, the beating heart of the book is research by a University of Alabama, Birmingham professor, Timothy Levine, that shows that people are bad at catching liars because we are wired to accept statements as true and that some portion of population present appearances out of kilter with their truthfulness. (i.e. Some people come across as liars — even when telling the truth, and others appear truthful with pants ablaze.) This contradicts earlier research that suggests liars always have tells. [Interestingly, if true, Levine’s research upends studies Gladwell used in his previous book “Blink,” research by Paul Ekman that suggested that liars have “leakage” of “micro-expressions” that reveal their true emotional state. Gladwell admits his views have changed on the Ekman work. It’s the price of dealing with ground-breaking counter-intuitive research: sometimes, it’s not going to validate as well as one would like – not unlike the controversy about the Anders Ericsson’s “10,000-hour rule” that is the core of Gladwell’s 2008 book “Outliers,” and which seems much less robust in light of subsequent research.)
Gladwell employs a number of compelling stories to show how even individuals who should be the best of us at telling truth from lies (e.g. counter-intelligence officers, industry experts, and veteran law enforcement officers) do dismally at spotting lies and at grasping the true nature of what strangers hold in their hearts. [It should be noted that people are better truth detectors than lie detectors because of the aforementioned truth bias.] Readers also learn quirky facts such as why the sitcom “Friends” is insanely popular in many non-native English-speaking countries. (e.g. In Vang Vieng, Laos, I witnessed this myself, with several cafes and restaurants playing “Friends” on a loop all day every day.) The book also presents discussion of research overturning the idea that facial expression of emotions is universal.
I found this book to be an intriguing read and would highly recommend it for those interested in learning why it’s impossible to “read” strangers. I don’t know how well the ideas will validate, but the cases are interesting and compelling.
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