How do some conversations start politely and end in tragedy? Malcolm Gladwell has studied some famous encounters that ended really badly in his new book Talking to Strangers.
The writer, journalist and podcaster told Seán O’Rourke this morning that our ‘instincts’ about people we don’t know aren’t always right. Gladwell says this is especially true when it comes to policing. He cites the case of Sandra Bland, a 28-year old Texan who was stopped by a police officer for a minor traffic violation. Things escalated and Ms Bland was taken into custody. She took her own life 3 days later in a jail cell in Waller County.
“It’s a classic example of an encounter between two strangers that goes wrong. And I’m trying to answer the question, ‘Why does it go wrong?’”
Malcolm Gladwell mines stories like these to form a better understanding of ‘stranger encounters’. He says the officer in Sandra Bland’s case was misled by his observations of her behaviour:
“He perceived her to be behaving oddly and concluded that she must have some malicious intent. She must be dangerous, have drugs, a gun. In fact, she was just upset.”
In the book, Gladwell deals with mistaken assumptions of guilt, but he also writes about a bias towards truth. He says this is the human default position, that the evidence shows that humans are ‘hard-wired’ to trust other people:
“We are as human beings built to trust people. And that’s a lovely thing.”
This trust can be cruelly exploited from time to time, says Gladwell:
“Every now and again we will be deceived by someone, some kind of sociopath. And when that happens, we shouldn’t consider that a failure of the way we are, or a reason to change. We should just accept that as the price of being human.”
Thankfully, Gladwell says we’re not likely to encounter too many murderous dictators or unscrupulous scam artists in our daily lives:
“The number of people who are Hitlers or Bernie Madoffs is vanishingly small. […] The benefits of being trusting are so large, that we can pay the occasional price of being deceived.”
If Gladwell’s rules apply, most people will default to believing him. Let’s also hope that he’s right.
You can hear more from Malcolm Gladwell’s book including how the CIA was fooled by Cuban double agents during the Cold War and how the wrongly-convicted Amanda Knox was misunderstood in the full interview here.
Malcolm Gladwell’s book Talking to Strangers: What we should Know about the People We Don’t Know is published by Allen Lane.
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