THE X-PAT FILES - Scott Garceau (The Philippine Star) - November 3, 2019 - 12:00am

I was watching US President Trump’s White House communications guru Kellyanne Conway defend her boss on TV recently, and she said something kind of odd: despite all the criticisms and impeachment woes leveled at Trump, “nobody can know what’s in his heart” when he does what he does.

This is an evolution, perhaps, from her earlier version when he was still president-elect:

 “You (the press) always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart.” After three years of looking, can Americans be trusted to judge what’s in Trump’s heart? Or does this, as Conway seems to suggest, remain a locked-away mystery that no one can safely judge?

 That’s the kind of puzzle writer Malcolm Gladwell ponders in his latest examination of the cultural zeitgeist, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know. Gladwell — who has a remarkable knack for taking the social pulse, whether it’s the value of instinct when making decisions (Blink), how unusual thinking results in brilliance (Outliers), or how dif? cult it is to pick winners based on assumptions (David & Goliath) has written another timely bestseller, considering the heated discourse in the US. But he never goes where you might guess a modern, liberal free-thinking social observer would go: he doesn’t attack anybody’s political beliefs. But it’s kinda still there, nibbling at the edges.

He just offers different perspectives on how to think about it. Talking to Strangers is a grab-bag of anecdotes, some interesting, some less so, but all aimed at examining one thing: why is it so hard to read people? Why can’t we tell who’s telling the truth and who’s lying? After all, we’re not mind readers. And we’re not even good heart readers. Whether it’s a spy in our midst, a terrorist hiding in plain sight, a white traf? c cop pulling over a black woman in Texas, or a young girl not knowing if she can trust a guy who offers her a drink at a frat party, Gladwell unmasks numerous theories to explain our confusion.

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest asks: Why is it so hard to read people? Why can’t we tell who’s telling the truth and who’s lying?

• Asymmetric insight. According to this theory, we’re more willing to judge others than ourselves, because we feel we have a special “insight” into when strangers are truthful or not. Problem is, we’re often wrong. It’s a distortion that has caused many historical miscalculations. Take the example of British PM Neville Chamberlain, who in 1938 famously thought he could “judge” whether Adolf Hitler was a man of peace by meeting him face to face. Chamberlain was wrong; a week after their pleasant sitdown, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia.

• Truth-Default Mode. We tend to trust people before we suspect them, because if we went around suspecting every single person of shady behavior, well, society would probably crumble into dust. The famous example is the Stanley Milgram experiment in 1961, in which volunteers were seated in a room where they could see a man wired to a device in an adjoining room; it was a memory experiment, the volunteers were told, and they were to administer shocks to the wired man via a switch if he gave wrong answers to questions. People overwhelmingly agreed to administer the “shocks” (which were fake) to the stranger, because they were cowed by the legitimacy of the experimental setting. They did what they told, participating in a cruel experiment, because they weren’t able to overcome their default belief that it was all, somehow, legit.

 • Transparency Myth. One of the more intriguing examples involves the TV sitcom Friends. Gladwell notes that it’s totally possible to understand an episode of Friends with the sound turned off, because the actors are so transparent in conveying their facial expressions, we get every nuance of what the characters are up to. But in real life, this kind of transparency is a myth: we can’t read faces very well at all. Liars are expert at masking their true feelings, and what seems like universal facial expressions (anger, sadness, joy) can be interpreted any number of ways throughout the world.

• Myopia Theory. Sometimes, it’s the setting and circumstances that alter our ability to spot the truth. Gladwell cites the case of a “Jane Doe” campus rape victim, and how hard it was to judge what really happened at a frat party, because both victim and assailant were so drunk they experienced blackouts. Who’s telling the truth when nobody remembers what actually happened? Alcohol, thought to reveal inner truth (“in vino veritas”), actually distorts our sense of self, and makes judgment even muddier — more “myopic — than usual. (Interestingly, when Duke University students were interviewed on the topic of campus drinking, they overwhelmingly agreed there should be more self-defense training for women, and that men should be taught to treat women better. But very few of them said students should cut down on their alcohol consumption.)

 • Coupling. Sylvia Plath is often depicted as a suicidal poetess who was all but doomed to eventually end it all by sticking her head in a gas oven. (And Gladwell does come up with the most interesting trivia, like the fact that poets are the most suicidal of writers of all, by far.) But Gladwell points out the theory of coupling, which means an action like suicide is usually matched to a certain context, a certain comfortable opportunity. Take away the opportunity — like using safer natural gas instead of deadly carbon monoxide in ovens, or removing a lot of handguns from the US — and suicide cases tend to plummet. It’s too much trouble to kill yourself in a less available way. No more opportunity.  Gladwell has a way of developing his examples in engaging stories that call up our own personal experiences. We can relate to his anecdotes, even if the logic connecting them is sometimes a bit fuzzy. Talking to Strangers is framed by another true example, one involving “proactive policing,” in which cops assume the worst of people they pull over for traf? c stops. In Texas, it led to a young woman’s suicide, because, as Gladwell sees it, the traf? c cop broke some of the rules above, while adhering rigidly to others. It led to a perfect storm of misunderstanding, and it’s a ? tting encapsulation of how hard it is to interpret others, especially strangers, without ? rst putting yourself in their shoes.

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