• Sarah Carter

Truth Default

Malcom Gladwell really got me thinking while reading Talking to Strangers: What we should know about the people we don't know. I thought I was a pretty good judge of character but I honestly don't know if I would have handled any of the well researched instances he presents any differently. And I'm not sure that's a strike against me in anyway. The reality is that "we have no choice but to talk to strangers, especially in our modern, borderless world...Yet at this most necessary of tasks we are inept" (pg. 342). Not inept as in we can't actually talk to them but inept in that we struggle to derive their intentions because social evolution has conditioned us to give everyone the cliche benefit of the doubt.

"We have a default to truth: our operating assumption is that the people we are dealing with are honest" (pg. 73). We want to believe that the kind stranger who approaches us at the Trevi Fountain in Rome, and offers to take our picture, isn't then going to take one with their camera (instead of ours) and charge us for it. Yes that really happened to me!

Gladwell explores several way more publicized, consequential cases where people's default to truth mode led them astray - Fidel Castro's number one CIA spy within the CIA, Neville Chamberlain's trust for Hitler, and the President of Penn State who seemingly ignored accusations of Jerry Sandusky - just to name a few. All of the instances Gladwell references have three things in common: 1) Everyone defaulted to truth, 2) Doubts eventually over powered truth, 3) Those involved had to decide rather or not to trust others again.

Start with Truth

I had no reason to doubt the man at Trevi Frountain. He was dressed like every other tourist. He offered to take our picture, asked for my phone, waited until we were posed, and then lowered my phone to use his camera smiling the whole time. I laughed it off telling him I would not pay him and if he tried to run off with my phone I'd yell for the two police officers I could clearly see behind him.

"If you don't begin in a state of trust, you can't have meaningful social encounters" (pg. 104). While we were not expecting some hugely impactful social encounter with the man at the fountain, we didn't want to be distrustful of everyone around us either. Same thing, but on a larger scale, with Neville Chamberlain and his relationship with Hitler. He was the only world leader at the time who had not one but several private audiences with the dictator and still didn't recognize his treachery. Why? Simply because we need to believe in the truthfulness of others, the alternative is a way worse and lonely reality.

Default to truth becomes an issue when we are forced to choose between two alternatives, one of which is likely and the other of which is impossible to imagine. pg. 130


The rest of the trip in Rome I had my guard up. I was extra cautious and skeptical of everyone we met in plazas, churches, ruins, restaurants, pretty much everywhere. I had entered the paranoid world of doubt. "We fall out of truth-default mode only when the case against our initial assumption becomes definitive" (pg. 74).

I found it interesting that "there are more theories about why we lie, and how to detect those lies, than there are about the Kennedy assassination" (pg. 69). I think this is because we are so shocked, horrified, and embarrassed when we cannot detect someone's deceit and we want to understand how it happened so we aren't deceived again. Think about it, why is it called a lie detector test? Why not truth detector test since that is what it reads most of the time? The lies are only a small percentage of it but that is what we're focused on because of our doubts about the person taking the test.

You believe someone not because you have no doubts about them. Belief is not the absence of doubt. You believe someone because you don't have enough doubts about them. pg. 78

To Trust Again?

How did I trust strangers to take my picture again after Rome? How did any of the USA Women's gymnastics team members ever trust a doctor again after Larry Nassar touched them? Or how did Emily Doe ever go to a party, or on a date, again after her encounter with Brock Turner? Eventually belief in the need to trust others, and let them in, out weighed the constant doubt. "Those occasions when our trusting nature gets violated are tragic. But the alternative - to abandon trust as a defense against predation and deception - is worse" (pg. 343).

I'm still mildly skeptical of strangers, especially when there is a language barrier. It's healthy to hold back. "The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility" (pg. 261). However, never interacting with strangers for overwhelming fear that they are deceitful and dishonest 100% of the time (like Dr. Gregory House with his patients in the TV show House) is not living. Those people who initially start out as strangers in your world could be just the piece of the puzzle missing in your life. A spouse, teammate, business partner, or countless other relationships that couldn't exist without your initial default to truth mode running the show. So yes, while it is tragic when we are misled by strangers, defaulting to truth is worth the risk because the good encounters far out number the bad.

Next Time

Gladwell also asks us to examine our expectations of transparent human behavior when encountering strangers. We'll be tackling that topic on Sept 23rd. Until then, tell me about your encounters with strangers!! How would you rate your truth default? 10 being always trusting and 1 being paranoid of anyone you don't know. Comment below, send me an email, or reach out on my Facebook or Instagram pages. Happy reading!

18 views2 comments