Why “Talking to Strangers” might be the most frightening book you read this year

Malcolm Gladwell is one of my favorite authors. His books inspire me to learn in a myriad of nontraditional ways: They help me rediscover ideas and concepts I always subconsciously knew but never really paid attention to; they validate some of my crazy thinking and motivate me to learn more on seemingly unrelated topics; they help me learn new ways of conducting discovery and turning insights into strategy and action; they move me and keep my brain alive. And yes, I own all his books and have read them cover-to-cover, some multiple times and with a highlighter.
So the moment I learned about the new book Talking to Strangers, I bought it and read it. Then I pondered about it for a bit and read it again. This book is different from all the previous books by Gladwell; or at least my reaction to it was very different. While reading Gladwell’s previous books, my most frequent exclamations were “Aha!” and “Of course!” with occasions “Wow, I did not know that.” My general feeling while reading Talking to Strangers was “Oh, no! What are we supposed to do now?!”
The book challenges not one, but a number of core beliefs that I have about the modern concept of work as well as of the work of researchers. Here are 3 things I found most disturbing:
– Working under pressure (including time pressure) is a waste from the quality as well as learning perspective. According to Gladwell, when our brain is stressed (which is a common occurrence in today’s work place), it “detaches” its parts responsible for creating and recalling memories. As a result, a piece of work created under pressure does not benefit from the entire range of previous experience/knowledge (resulting in substandard quality) and does not contribute to the “knowledge bank” for future use. Surely, this does not happen every time, but even if our brain succumbs to stress on even half of the occasions we work under pressure, the waste is still immense. Now, think about all the times we proudly put on our resume, “I perform well under pressure”!
– The context of an action is more powerful than a human motivation for that action. The concept of coupling that Gladwell introduces in the book challenges most of my knowledge about human agency and motivation: No matter how strong is the motivation for an action, the action is unlikely to happen unless the favorable circumstances/context are easily available. Turns out, we are all lazy, even the best among us; we all subconsciously want to “follow the yellow brick road,” to get to the destination without overthinking the path we are taking. And we are surely not creating that path from the scratch. The idea of coupling is helpful for constructing large scale behavior changes – we just need to think of how to redesign the context to present the desired behavior as obvious and inevitable or makes undesirable behavior difficult-to-impossible. But does this mean that my motivation to grow a company, to write a book, to be truly good at something coupled with hard work towards the goal is less powerful than the same motivation coupled with the right context? This is quite demotivating (no pan intended) because our own context is something we rarely control or engineer.
– Body language and facial expressions are there to confuse us not help us. Most of the time what we think we project is very different from what we really project; our subconscious behavior (looking down, crossing legs, etc.) is also rarely a true sign of how we feel. Add that to the known facts that we rarely say what we think and are very bad at expressing our feelings – how does a researcher even approach any study, no matter qualitative or quantitative?! You cannot rely on people’s words, expressions, actions – and any triangulation of false is then nothing but false3. According to Gladwell, trained investigators (FBI, CIA, etc.) are no better at “getting” people than regular people and are much worse than a machine. What do we do then with the body of social and psychological research accumulated since sociology and psychology were not even declared sciences?
The most frightening feature of Gladwell’s book, however, is not the list of our false beliefs but the fact that the book does not really offer any solution. Its key message is to be aware, to pay attention and to questions things, people, and ideas. Why is this frightening? Because, according to the same book, questioning and doubting are not innate to the human nature; our “default setting” is to believe that what’s on the surface is true. Those who brave the scary path of doubting everything and learn the art of inquiry, are walking a fine line between awareness and paranoia.
As a researcher, it seems I have chosen the “scary” path some years ago. It’s too late now to change the direction, so I’d just consider myself warned.
#research #investigation #socialsciences #bodylanguage #workingunderpressure #context #behaviorchange #behaviorchangecommunication #SBCC