Notes from Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Talking to Strangers’

The social human species evolved to default to truth when encountering each other. That works well more than it doesn’t but in complex society it results in many unintended consequences.

That’s the heart of Talking with Strangers, the 2019 book by journalist-public intellectual Malcolm Gladwell. That year, I saw Gladwell speak about his research informing the book. Though I got a copy of the book then, I only just got around to reading it.

Like many others, I enjoy Gladwell and admire the journey he’s taken as journalist, extending into longform narrative nonfiction to push forward our understanding of the world. Below I share a few short notes for myself in the future.

  • “Doubts are not the enemy of belief; they are its companion.”
  • Truth-default theory: We match feelings with culturally created stereotypes of facial cues that some fit and some don’t. (Amanda Knox was nervous not guilty; Hitler was a sociopathic liar but Neville Chamberlain believed him)
  • Alcohol myopia theory is a description of the cognitive effects of intoxication, describing a heightened focus on short-term gains, at the expense of long-term ones. It’s different than a commonly held understanding of the “disinhibiting” effects of alcohol. Rather than alcohol being a kind of ‘truth serum,’ in which we become more honest versions of us, it’s a different version of us, without our longterm goals in mind.
  • What we want from strangers isn’t a mineral to extract by digging harder, it is a delicate flower that can be easily destroyed.
  • In 1988, criminologist Ronald Clarke made the case that suicide is a “coupling” event not one of displacement. Suicide happens when stressors and a readily available means are both met at the same time. (He used the historic example of the United Kingdom transitioning from “town gas” with lethal carbon monoxide in homes to natural gas in the 1960s. Suicides overall, including those using gas, declined.. Displacement would have made the switch irrelevant to suicide rates.
  • Law of Crime Concentration: 3-5% of a city’s blocks make up 50%+ of a city’s crimes. Don’t say a city has bad neighborhoods say it has bad blocks.
  • In 1991, Kansas City Police focused aggressive policing in these concentrated blocks to remove guns. Over time, these law enforcement practices became widespread defaults.
  • For example, over 7 years North Carolina state highway police went from 400k to 800k annual traffic stops. But this haystack search only got 17 guns, Gladwell reports. How much more aggressive searching is worth it?
  • Aggressive policing is a tool for very specific places and very specific times of day (overnight). Just is not statistical reason to infringe on liberties otherwise 

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