The Next Chapter

Why Malcolm Gladwell believes humans are terrible at detecting lies — and why we all need to get better at it

The bestselling author's latest book, Talking to Strangers, explores why society should commit to better understanding each other.
Malcolm Gladwell is the bestselling author of Talking to Strangers. (CBC)
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Malcolm Gladwell has written bestselling books of nonfiction such as The Tipping PointBlinkOutliersWhat the Dog Saw and David and GoliathIn his writing, Gladwell uses anecdotes and a narrative voice to examine how societal structures shape human behaviour, decision-making and the spread of ideas.

Gladwell's latest book is Talking to Strangers. The nonfiction work, which was one of the top 10 bestselling Canadian books of 2019, examines how we so frequently misinterpret the verbal and body language signals of others.

The Canadian journalist, author and public speaker joined Shelagh Rogers to discuss why he wrote Talking to Strangers.

A time of misunderstanding

"I was struck by how many high profile cases in the news were about the same thing — strangers misunderstanding each other. The more I looked at these kinds of cases, the more I became convinced that we're not in a time of disagreement but rather a time of misunderstanding.

I was struck by how many high profile cases in the news were about the same thing — strangers misunderstanding each other.- Malcolm Gladwell

"The Bernie Madoff case, that's a story about misunderstanding; people gave their money to someone who they thought was a financial whiz but was actually a con man.

"Amanda Knox is a young woman who is falsely accused of murdering her roommate in Italy. That's a story of misunderstanding. The Italian police thought she was a cold blooded murderer; she's just an awkward teenager from Seattle whose emotional cues were misunderstood by people who come from another culture.

"And then the Sandra Bland case happened. It was one high profile case in a string of tragic encounters between black Americans and law enforcement that made the news in that country a few years ago."

Believers by default

"One of the principal arguments in this book comes from a man named Tim Levine who was a researcher at the University of Alabama. He argues that there is a long standing puzzle in psychology: why are we so bad at detecting lies? 

"Tim Levine says it's because we didn't evolve to be lie detectors; we evolved to be believers. Evolution favoured the people who had faith and had trust in their fellow men and women.

When we are deceived, it's not because we're doing something wrong as human beings, it's because we're doing something right.- Malcolm Gladwell

"If you're a trusting person, you can do a million things that no one else can do. You could have warm and supportive relationships. You can participate in your community. You can start companies, put your child on the school bus in the morning and not spend the whole day wracked in worry. And because most people are honest, that's a really good strategy.

"But it just means that, every now and again, you'll be deceived. Levine says we should be prepared to pay that price. When we are deceived, it's not because we're doing something wrong as human beings, it's because we're doing something right."

No easy solutions

"There's no quick fix; we have to be far more humble and cautious in how we make sense of others. We have to be willing to postpone drawing conclusions about those we meet in the understanding that, in all likelihood, those conclusions may be false. Police officers often bear the brunt of these kinds of errors because we put them in situations where they have to make sense of people quickly. They're going to make mistakes. 

There's no quick fix; we have to be far more humble and cautious in how we make sense of others.- Malcolm Gladwell

"So is there a way to refashion law enforcement to minimize the consequences of those inevitable mistakes? 

"We just have to be a lot more aware in how we approach this most difficult of social tasks."

 Malcolm Gladwell's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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