Talking to Strangers
By: Malcom Gladwell

Quick-take: Well-produced armchair pscyhology.

Dan's Review

This book has floated around my radar for a good while, and I intentionally keep skipping it. I'm glad I finally gave it a shot.

The book is horribly titled. The reason I kept skipping it was this thought: "What do I care about the ramblings of some random guy off the street?" (Yes, I realize you are currently reading the opinion of some random guy.) I had this vision of Malcom Gladwell shoving his microphone at random strangers on the street like some horrible political coverage: "Hey, guy eating a hotdog! What do you think about gun control?"

That is not this book. A better title for this book would be "Truth Default Theory" or perhaps more clearly, "Why we are terrible at detecting liars". This book explores the failures of seasoned professionals to recognize the liars and the scam artists operating directly in front of them.

It covers Neville Chamberlain being played like a fiddle by Adolf Hitler. It covers how Cuban spies infiltrated the top ranks of the Defense Intelligence Agency undetected for years. It talks about how the regulators completely missed Bernie Madoff's ponzi scheme. The book covers it all in an interesting way. However, it does not go very deep with it.

The core argument that Malcom Gladwell proposes is that we all behave from what he describes as a "Default Truth" mechanism. The idea is that we all basically trust each other to operate in good faith until overwhelming evidence stacks up to snap us out of mindless trust mode to make us take a closer look.

It is a bit like saying "hindsight is 20/20". Once you know someone was lying, it is very easy to see all the warning signs that were originally overlooked. The problem is that each warning sign is easy to dismiss as they appear... until there are just too many to ignore. This is "Truth Default Theory". We like to believe all we see until things get too outlandish.

As for the overall book itself. I would not classify the theories above anything more than "armchair psychology". It is basically a single theory with the depth of a few paragraphs repeated and stretched out over 12 chapters. Fortunately, the stories themselves are interesting and decently written. Read the book for the stories, not for the psychology. Score: 3/5

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