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  • Dr. Lalit Chawla

E#54: Why Trust is Hard: Talking to Strangers-Malcolm Gladwell


This is a episode explores why

How do I know if you are trustworthy?


(This is the core of the transcript from the podcast. The Intro has been removed and some areas improved for reading ease.)



No matter what profession we're in, we are not good at evaluating people's intentions and their character. We are overconfident in our ability to do this correctly. Malcolm Gladwell makes a very strong case in his book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don't Know. He cleverly argues that human beings are very poor at judging character accurately, and he cites several studies that analyze this whole notion. Being a poor judge of character is a problem because so much of what we do, and need to do, is to uncover who we can trust or not trust as we make our way through life. Without trust, it's very hard to engage in a meaningful conversation or have a relationship, let alone a therapeutic relationship, especially if you are in a helping profession such as medicine.


I'd like to first ask you, have you ever made a mistake in judging a person's character, whether it was work-related or in your personal life? I'm guessing you have because I believe we all do. That's what this podcast episode is all about: how do we talk to strangers, and what are the pitfalls we must watch out for?


Malcolm Gladwell's book explores the difficulty we have in evaluating peoples' character and intent. For the most part, we trust people easily. We are, however, poor at spotting lies and judging character. Studies have shown that people are poor at detecting liars, and that's independent of who you are, whether you are a therapist, doctor, police, or judge. And there are some very compelling reasons for this.


We are poor at spotting lies and judging character.

Firstly, we overestimate our ability to judge strangers accurately. In 2017 a study by Harvard economist Sendhill Mullainathan compared judges' decisions on giving bail with those of an artificial intelligence program. The judges felt that they would be more accurate than a computer because they would evaluate the data from the reports of the cases. Still, most importantly, they will also be evaluating the person when they are face to face. Something a computer can't do. They feel they have the advantage because they can tell by the accused's demeanour if they are guilty and are likely to reoffend. So, what happened?


Out of 400,000 defendants released, the judges were 25% more likely to release a person who would commit a crime, while out on bail, versus a computer! That's 100,000 offenders released incorrectly. That's a huge error! A computer was better at predicting a safer outcome.


Judges, like most people, think they're good at evaluating people. Yet, most people are wildly overconfident in their ability to judge character. Malcolm Gladwell serves many other examples in his book, which I won't uncover here, and I highly recommend reading this book in its entirety. The bottom line is that we tend to make poor judgments and are far too overconfident with the little information we have.


Secondly, we are good at detecting truth when we intuitively see a match between what a person looks like and what we feel they should look like when certain behaviours fit cultural norms. For example, we think we can correctly assume a person is anxious if they are fidgety and restless because these actions reflect how we generally expect a person to act if they are anxious based on cultural expectations. This is what Malcolm Gladwell refers to as transparency.


"Transparency is the idea that people's behaviour and demeanour—the way they represent themselves on the outside—provides an authentic and reliable window into the way they feel on the inside." This congruent matching of behaviour is what we typically use to infer a person's mood. They outwardly look happy, so they must be happy. They are acting nervous - they must be nervous. As individuals, we are heavily influenced by our social norms and ideas about how certain inner emotions would look externally based on what we read, view and experience through the internet and other avenues.


judges were 25% more likely to release a person who would commit a crime, while out on bail, versus a computer! That's 100,000 offenders released incorrectly

Transparency is what we use when we're judging people. However, studies have shown that not everyone looks transparent. Not everyone will react surprised as we would expect- with their eyes wide open and their jaw dropped - one typical interpretation of a surprised look; however, that is not the only way a person can look surprised. They can be silent and look expressionless. They may be shocked but don't look it; in other words, they aren't transparent because most people think there is only one way to look surprised based on their learned stereotypes.


Malcolm Gladwell even cites his father's behaviour, who had to confront a killer and defuse a tense situation. On the outside, he looked calm and assertive, but on the inside, he was shaking like a leaf. He was not transparent at all. There was a mismatch between behaviour and feeling. Outwardly he looked confident, yet inwardly he was scared.


Can you think of situations where that has happened to you - when you've been surprised, sad, excited, or angry but didn't look that way outwardly? Have you found out you were having a surprise party and had to act like how you thought a surprised person should act? I know I had to one time, and I think for the most part, it worked. Nobody was the wiser.


We think we can read people's faces, but that's not true. Think about how differently a person can react to emotions, such as excitement, sadness, anger, and death. Even the way people grieve externally is not the same. If a person who does not openly cry when somebody they love dies, does that mean they are grieving less than a person wailing in tears? Malcolm Gladwell shares several studies that show we are poor at deciphering clues to read people accurately. He tells us how things can go wrong when authority figures misinterpret behaviours they expect in certain situations. For example, the Amanda Knox's case, where an innocent young woman was wrongfully jailed for a murder that she didn't commit. She simply did not look remorseful to the Italian police when her roommate was discovered murdered. Subsequently, she was wrongfully convicted, and it took years for her to prove her innocence when it should have been a straightforward investigation.


Can you think of situations where that has happened to you - when you've been surprised, sad, excited, or angry but didn't look that way outwardly?

People who are not transparent, or don't match up with society's expectations, can suffer devastating consequences. Think of how injustices have happened where people have been wrongly accused simply because their looks or demeanour didn't match the conventional social norms or beliefs.

We think liars look away and fidget, which is not always true. Have you ever had a confident liar look at you and lie to your face so convincingly? Conversely, the opposite is true when someone has nothing to hide but is poor at articulating themselves or takes too long to find the right words, and we think that they are lying. We, as human beings, are not good detectives in the moment.


It's challenging to interpret character and intentions from demeanour. Agitation can be a sign of stress rather than criminal intent or wrongdoing. Malcolm Gladwell shares an example of how police officer Brian Encinia stopped Sandra Bland, who was nervous rather than guilty of any crime. That interaction led to a terribly poor outcome and the eventual death of Sandra Bland. The incident's intent and escalation were the results of misinterpretations of Sandra's behaviour by the police officer.


We can all misinterpret events. Even a good person can take a neutral situation and turn it into a horrible situation. This is easy enough to do, and being mindful enough to spot this early and prevent escalation is key to effective communications and smooth interactions. Misinterpretations and escalations can be a big problem not only for police officers but also for other professionals. A doctor could say that a person is untruthful about their pain or anxiety because of how the patient is behaving. The doctor may make the misinterpretation that the patient is not feeling depressed or anxious' because they don't "look depressed or anxious" according to the textbook definition.


So how do we resolve this?

We can all misinterpret events. Even a good person can take a neutral situation and turn it into a horrible situation

I'll talk about solutions and approaches in just a minute. However, I want to extend this concept to people who are introverted or shy. Sometimes introverted or shy people can look as if they're not interested or engaged and can even come across as arrogant in social settings.


The reality is they may feel uncomfortable with people they are around. They can freeze as a result, and they may not know what to say in a situation, or merely the stimulation of the environment may be too much for them. Subsequently, others may resort to judgement and criticize them as snobby or uninterested. After all, what else would you think of when a person doesn't talk to you or look at you? In western culture, this is a sign of an uninterested, arrogant or proud person.


It's easy to read what a friendly person is like or what we think they should be like. They're socially interactive, they look at you, and they talk with you. They use their body language to meet social norms and expectations. We live in a culture where extroverted people are honoured. The assumption that introverts are aloof or arrogant is not accurate because of the mismatch principle. So the next time you interact with a quiet person, re-examine your assumptions of that person. Are you profiling them according to your learned beliefs, filling the silence with negative misinterpretations?


Do we assume people tell lies all the time? What are the answers?


Sometimes introverted or shy people can look as if they're not interested or engaged and can even come across as arrogant in social settings.

The good news is that Malcolm Gladwell says we are hardwired to believing others. If you were always suspicious, you would never get to experience the joys of parties, social events and your work, especially in the world of medicine. It would be tremendously hard if you assumed all the patients you interacted with were lying to you. So what can we do to make sure we don't fall into traps and make sure we are creating greater outcomes? Here are the key things to know:


Know that human beings can be poor judges of character and situations and are overconfident in our ability to judge strangers. Remember, there is more than one way to interpret a person's behaviour. Assumptions just make an Ass out of you and me. We believe we can actually make judgments of others with little and often inaccurate information. Consequently, we often create problems instead of solutions. We need to take our time to understand another individual, challenging our assumptions and overconfidence. Take a moment of pause and ask yourself, "could I be misinterpreting the behaviour in front of me?" Be open to the possibility that you might be wrong.


Also remember where you come from, and where others come from. Different people depending on their age, culture and life experience, have different interpretations of respect and emotions. In one culture, not making eye contact is a sign of respect, whereas, in another, that could mean an indication of guilt or trying to hide something. Remember your own cultural biases.

pause and ask yourself, "could I be misinterpreting the behaviour in front of me?"

Have you ever been lied to badly and feel guilty about being conned? Don't feel bad. People ignore triggers and obvious suspicions. Few are good at spotting liars. We assume people tell the truth because we don't have enough doubt about them, so we can't detect lies easily. Malcolm Gladwell says we should no longer penalize one another for defaulting to the truth. It doesn't make you a bad parent, teacher, doctor or police officer if you have been deceived. To abandon trust is a hard way to live. I highly recommend reading Malcolm Gladwell's book. He uncovers shocking situations where you would wonder, "how did he get away with that crime for so long?" It may also be therapeutic for those of us who have fallen prey to deception in our past.


Knowledge generates power to take action. Here is the challenge laid out for us. We know, as humans, we are not always good at detecting lies, and our default is to take things as truth. We must now be mindful of this so that we can be vigilant of deception when it occurs and not be too relaxed.


We must also take care to be aware of our pitfalls in profiling people with our learned, cultural biases and instead build bridges towards understanding one another and make strangers less threatening.

be mindful of this so that we can be vigilant of deception when it occurs and not be too relaxed.

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