Sunday, January 19, 2020


Malcolm Gladwell has built a career on studying the mundane facts of life and demonstrating there is more to them. In reality people make assumptions to cover most everyday activities, but often these assumptions are not correct.  

I had heard a radio interview with Malcolm in which he said he was optimistic.  Hopefully more people will better understand his books and give us better reasons to be optimistic.

He draws on scientific studies and illustrates points with well known news stories.  His first story is about Sandra Bland who in a well covered story went from a run in with police officer over relatively minor traffic offense to committing suicide in jail a few days later.   Cleverly the rest of his arguments explain what happened and why. 

After that we review the history behind Britain's Neville Chamberlain misreading Adolf Hitler after a few meetings.  At the same time those who did not meet with Hitler, such as Winston Churchill read Hitler's character more accurately.  Gladwell points out that most people prefer to believe what they are told until doubt mounts past a point of acceptance.  He recounts in detail the long trail to finally confront Jerry Sandusky with years of sexual abuse.

He gives the examples of Bernie Madoff and Amanda Knox to demonstrate how easily we can misread strangers.  Sometimes the guilty appear innocent, but also that the innocent can easily appear guilty.

Another big news story was Brock Turner being convicted of rape.  The circumstances were not unusual with Gladwell claiming it is normal for university students to go to parties to get drunk and meet strangers.  To compound the fact that humans have difficulty understanding a stranger is alcohol.  Gladwell adopts a relatively new theory called myopia theory that states that alcohol narrows our our emotional and mental vision.  This distorts the issue of consent.  Aside from the fact that a drunk person is not supposed to be able to give consent is the fact that most visitors to fraternity parties fully intend to get drunk.

Coupling is a concept that attaches two ideas together.  To illustrate he retells the story of Sylvia Plath's suicide.  She was subject to depression and had often talked of suicide expressing some concern with avoiding a mess.  At the time one very easy method of suicide was to use ovens with gas.  A few years later the gas connection was ended and it had been thought that if someone really wanted to kill themselves they would try another method, however when the gas connection ended suicides declined.  The point was the idea of suicide and the idea of using gas ovens were coupled and when one was ended the idea was stopped.  The Golden Gate Bridge presented further evidence when after many years a suicide barrier was implemented suicides declined.

Finishing where he started he re visits the Sandra Bland case and recognizes the problem wasn't that the police officer did not follow procedures, but that he did.  An earlier crime study  was misunderstood.  By meticulous research it was learned that an effective way to uncover drug and gun problems was to stop suspicious vehicles in suspicious neighborhoods, even on flimsy (but legal) excuses and question the driver.  It still amounted to finding a needle in a haystack, but narrows down the prospects.  Going beyond the narrow confines widens the prospects and invites problems.  Sandra Bland was not in a suspicious neighborhood and the police officer did not really understand her circumstances.

There are many incidents and studies to make his point . Gladwell is a master at connecting apparently unconnected ideas.

The best advice given by the author amounts to:  "The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility." We don't know everything about the context and should be wary of misreading what we see as signals.

Acknowledgments are insightful.  He recalled certain events involving his father during his discourse to illustrate different points.  His father (along with his mother) apparently had proofed his books, but had died with Malcolm's comment, "It is a lesser book without his contribution."

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