Do you think by meeting someone, shaking their hand, and looking into their eyes, you can get a grasp of who they are, and what their intentions are?
You probably have done this before. We all do it, whether it's a job interview, a first date, or whatever. But if you think you are good at reading people, you are wrong.
Let’s look at bail judges. They are trained to read criminals. It’s their job. They look at the person's eye before making any decisions. After all, how can you tell if a person is lying unless you look deep into their eyes? So, they did research on a group of bail judges in 2017. The results were shocking. Computer programs just by accessing the background of the criminal performed 25 percent Better in making the right decisions compared to the judges who not only had access to all this information but were also able to see the person and look at their eyes.
This created some puzzles for researchers. How is it that meeting a stranger can make us worse at getting to know their personality? Why can't we tell when the stranger in front of us is lying to our faces? We all think we can make a decision about someone just by looking at them, but the truth is we really are not good at this. Malcolm Gladwell in his book called Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don't Know, talks about why we are so bad at judging others and what to do about it. In this summary, I share with you three key lessons from the book that I learned. Let's get started.
Lesson #1: Humans are naturally bad at detecting lies.
Do you think you would be able to spot a Cuban spy if you worked with one? Ana Montes worked for the DIA and gave all sorts of U.S. secrets to Cuba without getting caught. It's not like that she was a brilliant spy. She was actually terrible. When they caught her, she had the codes that she used to communicate with her handlers in her purse. There were so many red flags about her. But nobody thought anything beyond a faint feeling of suspicion. People in the DIA thought she just acted like a spy. So they believed in her despite so many red flags. This is something we all do and they call it the default to truth. We tend to believe that people are telling the truth, even if we may have some doubts. We default to truths unless we have enough evidence that they are lying.
They did a study and participants were asked to tell who was lying in a mock scenario. The result was that people can detect a liar correctly only 54 percent of the time. Can you believe that? It's almost like flipping a coin, that's how bad we are at detecting lies.
Lesson #2: You can't rely on people’s behavior for judging them.
We often assume that people are transparent. We think if we observe someone's facial expressions and body language, then we'll know what they are feeling or thinking. But this is not always the case. In 2007, a British student was murdered by a man named Rudy Guede. At first, the police suspected her roommate, Amanda Knox, They came to a bizarre conclusion about Amanda's motives. They only used her actions after the murder to paint her as a suspect. They were convinced that Amanda was guilty because she appeared nervous and her behavior seemed to indicate guilt, but in reality, she wasn't guilty at all. She was just nervous because she didn't know what else to do while being interrogated.
While some people are transparent and very easy to understand, others like Amanda, are not. And you can't rely only on people's behavior to make a judgment about them.
Lesson #3: We tend to underestimate the power of context in people's behavior.
Conditions have a huge impact on a person's behavior. This is called coupling, and it's a concept that explains why people do what they do in certain situations. For example, the police know that crime is usually tied to a particular location. Another good example of this is the Golden Gate Bridge. Since it opened in 1937, more than 1500 people have committed suicide by jumping off the bridge. So officials decided to install a net underneath the bridge to prevent people from committing suicide. But because it was so expensive and they weren't sure if that would actually prevent people from killing themselves, they did a survey and 75 percent of participants predicted that most of the people who wanted to kill themselves will do it anyway, and the net is not going to prevent that. A psychologist named Richard Sedin followed upon 515 people who attempted to kill themselves, but somehow they were stopped at the last moment. He found that only 25, less than five percent, persisted in Killing themselves by some other method. Overwhelmingly, the people who want to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge at a given moment, want to jump only that specific bridge at that given time. This shows that suicide is coupled. The same idea applies to every other behavior. We usually miss the environmental factors that play a large part in people’s attitudes and behaviors.
So to summarize, the first set of mistakes we make with strangers is the default to truth and illusion of transparency. This has to do with our inability to make sense of the stranger as an individual. But on top of those errors, we make another, we don't understand the importance of context in which the stranger is operating.
If I want to put this whole book in just one sentence, it would be this:
Don't look at the stranger and jump to conclusions. Look at the stranger's world.