In the flesh, Malcolm Gladwell is exactly as I imagined him to be: engaging, polite, dauntingly cerebral and supremely self-assured in that way that the exceptionally gifted often are. At 55, there is still something of the sporty, if slightly gawky, teenager about him; his jeans and a lightweight hoody accentuate his height and wiry thinness.
The signature afro has been tamed somewhat and, if anything, makes him look even younger. He is not big on small talk, and one senses that every hour in his working day is geared towards maximum efficiency.
Gladwell’s new book is called Talking to Strangers and, here we are, two strangers, conversing over tea in a fashionable Covent Garden hotel about the difficulties that can sometimes arise when, as he puts it, “we are thrown into contact with people whose assumptions, perspectives and backgrounds are different from our own”.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Like the previous bestselling books that made his name — The Tipping Point (2000), Blink (2005), Outliers (2008) — Talking to Strangers is essentially an exploration of human behaviour that also challenges much of our received wisdom about that behaviour and its motivations. Unlike them, though, it lacks a single iconoclastic, zeitgeist-defining idea, instead roaming far and wide to illustrate the problems, individual and collective, personal and ideological, that dog our interactions with others in our globalised, but increasingly atomised, culture.
“Any element which disrupts the equilibrium between two strangers, whether it is alcohol or power or place, becomes problematic,” he says. “The book is really about those disruptive influences.”
His subjects range from the spectacular failures of the FBI to detect spies within its midst to the gullibility and greed of investors who lost vast fortunes by trusting their money to the fraudster Bernard Madoff. Along the way, he demolishes the Italian authorities’ case against Amanda Knox, the American student accused of murdering her roommate, Meredith Kercher, in Perugia in 2007. And, using recent research into the concept that crimes are intrinsically linked to the locations they occur in, he suggests new ways of tackling crime prevention. He even employs the same research to insist that the poet, Sylvia Plath, might not have killed herself had she not been living in a house with a gas cooker. So far, so Gladwellian.
For his fans, who are legion, this is familiar territory: an iconoclastic take on the big subjects we think we know about and the even bigger subjects whose complexity is such that we need someone to explain them on our behalf. If there is one arresting concept in the mix it is the truth default theory, a concept formulated by the US academic Timothy Levine, who specialises in deception. Put simply, it states that our fundamental reaction to the receipt of any kind of new information is to believe it. This, it strikes me, may help explain the state we are in, from post-truth politics to the proliferation of conspiracy theories. It is, though, much more complex than that.
While our instinct to default to truth leaves us open to deception and facilitates fraud on an often grand scale, it also underpins nearly all our initial interactions with others and, as such, enables friendships to form, relationships to start and business to be transacted.
“The bottom line is that civil society simply cannot function without default to truth,” says Gladwell. “I can’t converse with you, for instance, if I subject every statement that comes out of your mouth to critical scrutiny before I accept it as true. Conversation cannot proceed without default to truth.”
This is pure Gladwell — although, as his critics will almost certainly point out, it is, in fact, pure Levine. Part of Gladwell’s genius — and his success — is to render the complex theories and dogged statistical research of academics palatable to a mass audience often by anecdotally illustrating their effectiveness. He is an unabashed populariser, whose big project, he tells me, is “to get people to take human psychology seriously and to respect the complexity of human behaviour and motivations.”
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