Malcolm Gladwell On How We Fail To Understand One Another

Sep 20, 2019

Credit Sydney Bilodeau; The Music Hall

NHPR and The Music Hall in Portsmouth present Writers on a New England Stage with international bestselling author and podcast host Malcolm Gladwell, who sat down with Peter Biello to discuss his new book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know.

This interview was recorded on September 13, 2019. Air date: Monday, September 21, 2019. 

This interview was edited for time and content. You can listen to the full interview here

Gladwell is the author of five New York Times bestsellers: The Tipping PointBlinkOutliers, What the Dog Saw, and David and Goliath, as well as being named one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People. He also produces the podcasts Revisionist History and Broken Record. Gladwell has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1996.

His latest book, Talking to Strangers, examines interactions between strangers and why they often go awry. Looking at moments in history—Fidel Castro fooling the CIA, the trial of Amanda Knox in Italy, the death of Sandra Bland—Gladwell points out flaws in people’s perceptions of one another and how they draw those conclusions. His thought-provoking prose weaves through the psychology of human tendencies and the consequences of our misguided judgements and inability to understand the strangers around us.

 

Transcript:

This is a computer-generated transcript and may contain errors. 

Peter Biello:
Hi, Peter Biello here. Today on The Exchange, we present my conversation before a live audience with author Malcolm Gladwell. It was recorded earlier this month for Writers on a New England Stage, a partnership between NHPR and the Music Hall in Portsmouth. First, Gladwell spoke about the inspiration for his new book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know, before he sat down to answer questions with me.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Thank you, it's a real pleasure to be here in New Hampshire. I thought what I would do is I tell you a random story from the book and then I don't want to upstage any of the discussion that comes later.

And it's a story about before I came to the real subject of this book, which is an examination of the death of Sandra Bland. I was kind of searching around for a topic that would engage my imagination. And I had this, I had this kind of rule that I use about what are the kinds of memoirs that I read. I think memoirs are an extraordinarily good source of ideas for writers. But my rule is as follows:

Malcolm Gladwell:
You don't want to read the memoir of the famous person because they've had a really, really interesting life. But they're not going to share any of it with you because they're famous. Like there's stakes involved. They can't diss, you know, other famous people or they'll get in trouble. So they're high on the potentially interesting low on the actually interesting. And then on the other hand, you don't wanna read a memoir by someone who isn't famous because they will tell you everything. But they have nothing to tell you.

Right.

Their lives had not been that interesting. What you really want is the sweet spot in the middle. You want the mid range biography.

Malcolm Gladwell:
So I read lots of mid range memoirs and I was reading a classic mid-range memoir, it was a memoir I was reading by the former general counsel of the CIA. That's perfect. Who's ever heard the general counsel of the CIA?

No one has. But he's the general counsel of the CIA.

So it's like he's had a super interesting life, but he's not so famous that he's concerned about burning all his bridges. He made a reference in his memoir to another memoir by an equally midrange writer named Brian Latell, who is a former CIA operative, operative, official who used to run the Latin America desk of the CIA. Again, right in the middle. I read that one. And I went to see Brian to tell because it was so interesting because it was a particular story he tells, which really caught my eye involving a guy named Florentino Aspillaga. So I go down to Miami and I meet with Brian Latell and he tells me a little bit about Florentino.

Malcolm Gladwell:
And he says, but I can't tell you anymore because there's one person who knows all of the full story. And his name is ... I can only refer to him as the mountain climber.

And the mountain climber was this legendary CIA operative who was witness to some of the most extraordinary events of the last 25 years. So I said, well, how can I get in touch with the mountain climber to hear more about the story of Florentino Aspillaga?

Malcolm Gladwell:
And Brian Latell said I can't tell you. I can't tell you where he is. I can't even tell you his real name. But I can only tell you that were you to find the mountain climber, he would shed an enormous light on this story. So.

He was basically waving the red flag in front of the bull.

So what did I do for the next two years of my life? I tried to find a mountain climber of course, and I'm not a very good reporter, I should say. But in this particular area, finding the mountain climber. I like to think that I excelled. And I sent out all kinds of feelers and I went to enormous lengths. I spent at an epic amount of time trying to find the mountain climber.

Malcolm Gladwell:
And one day I looked at my phone unless I had a message. I. Listen to the message and it was: "Hello. This is the mountain climber, I understand you've been looking for me."

So I call him up and I want to go see him. Of course, couldn't go see him. And he said he would agree to talk to me, but only if he called me from one of those, every now and then you get those calls where it just says, and if you've ever gotten this, and it just says, "no number." Ever seen those? The mountain climber called me from a no-number line. And he told me the full story of Florentino Aspillaga. Now, it's important to know before I go on about this that the mountain climber was a legend.

Malcolm Gladwell:
The mountain climber was one of the, he was the kind of Michael... the LeBron James of CIA operatives in his day. Everyone worshipped the mountain climber. When the mountain climber was in Eastern Europe, the Soviets used to used to have courses for their, you know, their their young KGB officers in training that were about the mountain climber, about like this is what it means to be a great spy.

And you should learn at the feet of the mountain climber. For a while, the mountain climber was in. He ran the the CIA's Cuba espionage operation out of Havana. And the Cubans worshipped him. He was like, they knew that there was this American in their midst who was incredible. And they just thought, they just thought he was a kind of hero, it would be like, you know, a superhero had descended into your little city. And he at one point there's a... I don't know if this is apocryphal.

Malcolm Gladwell:
The Soviets track down the mountain climber and they had like big briefcases full of cash. And they just opened the briefcases and they said, "if you just come and work with us, this is all yours. We'll just make you we'll give you millions of dollars in cash." And of course, the mountain climber was like... would have none of it. He spoke a million languages, always like a native. His tradecraft was in was impeccable. He was the spies spy. He made he made James Bond look like a bungler.

Malcolm Gladwell:
This is how good the mountain climber is. So I tracked down a man climber and I say, well, you tell me about Florentino Aspillaga. And he gives me this big histrionic sigh and says, "OK, I will."

Malcolm Gladwell:
Florentino was someone high up in the Cuban intelligence service who was transferred to run Cuba's intelligence operations in Czechoslovakia. This is it during the Cold War in the 1980s. And he decides to defect, because he's grown disillusioned with Fidel Castro and he crosses the border with his girlfriend in the trunk of his Mazda and he shows up at the U.S. embassy in Vienna and says, "my name is Florentino, Aspillaga. I'm a, you know, a senior official in the Cuban Intelligence Directive. I have a story to tell.".

And of course, they are thrilled that he has come over and they ship him immediately to the to a debriefing center in Frankfurt at a U.S. Army base where the CIA sends all of the defectors and they sit him down.

Malcolm Gladwell:
They say, "Tell us your story." He says, "I will. But first I have one request." They say, "what is the request?" He says, "I would like you to bring over someone who I have admired my entire life.

The mountain climber."

Malcolm Gladwell:
So the CIA calls the mountain climber who is on some secret location and they fly him into Frankfurt and the mountain climber comes into the room where Florentino is. And they, you know, they meet each other and they give each other a big hug and a kiss on both cheeks.

And the mountain climber sits down with Florentino Aspillaga. And he says, "tell me your story." And Florentino says, "El alpinista..." (Spanish for mountain climber), "When you were in Havana running the serious operations, you were my hero. I worked. You know, I worship you. I followed your every move. I wanted you to be present when I told you this story. You know, you ran a ring of spies when you were in Havana."

Malcolm Gladwell:
The mountain climber says, "Yes, of course I did." And Florentino says, "Well, you know, this one guy you had who was, who you met in such a place and he worked for this government ministry and he told you the following secrets..." And the mountain climber says, "yes," and Florentino says "That guy was working for us. He was a double agent." And the mountain climber is like, oh, my God. That's devastating.

And then Florentino says, "I'm not done. You know, the other guy you had who worked for this agency and gave you the following secrets? He was working for us too." And the mountain climber was like, suddenly this is his worst day of his life.

And then Aspillaga says, "Oh, I'm not done. You know this other spy, you had to work with you to boost your defense intelligence as he was working for us."

Malcolm Gladwell:
And the mountain time is one has lost the capacity for speech. He spoke in shock. But Florentino was not done. He then proceeds to name forty eight spies. The entire contingent of spies that the mountain climber was running in Havana in his years there.

Malcolm Gladwell:
And Florentino reveals that every single one of them was a double agent working for Fidel Castro the whole time. The greatest field operative of his generation had been fooled not once, not twice, but 48 times over the course of many, many years. Now, this is a super interesting story for a number of reasons. One is that when we think about what kinds of people are misled. Right. Who are victims of scams.

We always think that the victim of a scam fits a certain pattern. They're, you know, they're impaired in some way. They're gullible, they're aged and infirm. They're, you know, they always have some problem that allows them to be victims of deception. The mountain climber has none of those problems. The mountain climber is as good as it gets.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Yet he still gets deceived.

Fascinating thing number two is that: when we think of deception, we think that deception of that scale is something that happens once, right? You get for once, then you get wise to it. Well, at the mountain climber was not fooled once. He's fooled 48 times over the course of many, many years. In fact, this large scale Cuban deception went on for more than a decade before it was uncovered.

Malcolm Gladwell:
And the third thing we think is that:

When we see some kind of large scale deception like this, it must be due to the brilliance of the deceiver. Right? There must be the receiver must be someone possessed of unusual cunning who has some kind of evil genius who. And that that evil genius is what allows them to pull the wool over everyone's eyes.

But in the case of the Cubans and the mountain climber, it's not clear at all that the Cubans were particularly great at what they did. Right.

That they were. This is a small country with a limited budget working relatively crudely. And in fact, when you look at other cases of spies, you see the same pattern. The spies themselves are rarely geniuses. There was another Cuban spy named Ana Montes whose story telling my book, who rose to the very highest levels of American intelligence, even as she was giving away everything she found out back to Fidel Castro.

Malcolm Gladwell:
She was a terrible spy. She kept her codes in her purse.

When they finally busted her after 10 years, they finally bust her. They discovered that she had the radio that she used to communicate with her Cuban handlers inside a shoe box in her closet.

This is like amateur hour, right? So that's these three puzzles make us, I think, force us to face up to a very, very uncomfortable truth, which is that being deceived is not the property of some kind of outlying impaired person.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Rather, it's something that happens to even the best of us who are highly skilled at what we do. Right? And that even the best of us who are highly skilled at what we do can be deceived over and over again for many, many years without realizing that we're being deceived in that way. And that, to me, is an extraordinarily important fact in trying to understand about the way that the ways the world works. Right? That perhaps the capacity for being deceived is something that lies within all of us. And maybe one of the tasks we have as human beings is to learn how to adapt to our fundamental gullibility. So that is the that is one of the stories that got me off on the project that is talking to strangers, which I'm about to talk to talk about a whole lot more.

Malcolm Gladwell:
So thanks for coming and going to part two.

Peter Biello:
Well, Malcolm Gladwell. This is an honor. Thank you so much for coming to New Hampshire for Writers on a New England Stage.

Malcolm Gladwell:
I am delighted.

Peter Biello:
So we'll talk a lot about what's in your book. And the book just came out a couple of days ago. Chances are most folks here have not read it. I should say that whenever we talk about here will not spoil it for you. It is an amazing experience, too, to follow the narrative that that you've crafted here. So this will be a fun chat. Let's start by talking about default to truth, because that's a big premise in this book.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Yeah.

Peter Biello:
The idea that we as human beings are are programmed to trust the people that we don't know. Tell us a little bit about default to truth.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Yeah. This is an idea that comes from a very brilliant psychologist named Tim Levine, who inspired a lot of this book. And Levine was trying to solve the age old puzzle that has that has obsessed psychologist for many years, which is why are we so bad at knowing whether someone's lying to us? We're not. We are. If you if you there's been this has been so tested hundreds of different ways.

Malcolm Gladwell:
But basically, we're terrible at it. We're slightly better than chance at knowing whether we're being lied to. And you would think that we would be good at it because you would think that evolution would favor those who were skilled at detecting deception. And it has not. And so the issue for years among psychologists has been, why are we bad at this? Right. We're good at so many things. And Levine's answer is, we're bad at it because we did not evolve to be truth detectors. We evolved the opposite way. We evolved to be default truths, to be people who implicitly trust each other.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Because if you give everyone the benefit of the doubt and assume that everyone you're talking to, his tongue, the truth, your life is a lot easier. Right? Who succeeds in the world? Not the paranoid. People who succeed in the world. The people who trust each other. Right. Who starts companies? Not paranoid, suspicious people. People who trust. Right. Who who has a happy, productive home life. The kind of person who basically thinks the world is pretty good. Right.

Malcolm Gladwell:
You know, I could go on. And Levine's point is that: Look, the world, the wonderful society that we built is based on this notion of just assuming those around you are telling the truth. And most people are telling the truth. So it's not a bad strategy, except that every now and again, like if you're the mountain climber you is, you're going to be an easy prey to a dedicated liar.

In that case, the Cuban intelligence service. And Levine's point is that you just have to accept that that's just the price of being human. We should stop fretting about how we gave our money to Bernie Madoff and just get on with our lives. And I think he's not wrong. It's a really, really important consideration.

Peter Biello:
Well, I'm glad you mentioned Bernie Madoff, because that's one of the examples I want to dive into, because there was at least one person who saw what Bernie Madoff was doing and did not feel in any way incentivized to disbelieve the numbers that he was seeing. Harry Markopolos. Tell us about him.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Yeah. So Madoff's around for years, for decades on Wall Street. And he's he's managing billions of dollars. And there are lots of people in on Wall Street who don't understand how he's making his money, but their doubts don't because they default to truth.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Their doubts do not rise to the level where they will they will cease to give up the benefit out. One guy, Harry, a guy named Harry Markopolos does not have such a sunny view of Bernie Madoff from the beginning. Harry Markopolos says the guy's a fraud and he proves it 19 different ways.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Chapter and verse goes to the S.E.C. on numerous occasions and says the guy's a fraud. And the S.E.C. says, oh, I don't know. We went to see him. He was awfully convincing. No one will listen to Harry Markopolos. And finally, when Madoff is, remember, turned in by his sons, Markopolos becomes this kind of hero... Is the guy, the only guy who saw the truth. So the question is, do you want to be like Harry Markopolos?

Malcolm Gladwell:
Do you want to be the one who was able to see through the lies of Bernie Madoff? So I went to see Markopolos. And I also read his memoir, which is one of those little memoirs.

Malcolm Gladwell:
And if you read the memoir, you're like, ha! He's really a bit odd. And then I went to see him. He lives in Boston, but a huge be the first to agree that he's a little bit odd. And I sat down with him in Boston and we had a very long conversation during which he revealed himself to be. More than a little odd.

Malcolm Gladwell:
He is the kind of person you would be if you suspected everyone of deceiving you. He can't go five feet without thinking he's about to be tricked or scammed or he thinks that, you know, lift a rock and he thinks that there is some kind of Ponzi scheme under it.

Peter Biello:
Well, part of that was his upbringing, right. Like he grew up in a restaurant industry, his family on the restaurant. He saw people walk out of the back of the restaurant with his family's inventories.

Malcolm Gladwell:
They owned a chain of teachers, Arthur Treachers Fish & Chips, which I don't think exists anymore. Probably for good reason. But yeah.

Malcolm Gladwell:
He just grew up. I mean, he's just like but I think, you know, I wonder whether his upbringing. I don't mean to say that someone who grows up in the fast food business is prone to suspicion.

Peter Biello:
That's not what I'm saying. No, I'm simply saying he was he was exposed at an early age to the reality that some people are very dishonest and they will take advantage. And fast forward years later, and he's seeing Bernie Madoff take advantage of people.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Yes, he is just inclined. And the incredible thing is, so he sees the truth of Bernie Madoff. And he's been trying to tell the S.E.C. for years that this the S.E.C. finally comes up, you know, is presented with Madoff confessing all of his crimes. At which point Markopolis becomes convinced that Madoff will send hitmen to kill him.

Malcolm Gladwell:
And so he holes up in his house outside of Boston with like a shotgun and like a bandolier of extra ammunition and a gas mask, literally, and like gun trained at the door and expects it. And then they arrest Madoff. Is it OK? The Madoff threat has passed. But now there's the S.E.C. threat. He becomes convinced that the S.E.C. will send a band of like agents who will bust down his door and do harm to him and his family and steal all of his secret files. And so he's still like at the door with the gun.

Malcolm Gladwell:
And you realize, is it really worth it? Do you really want to be the guy who saw the truth of Madoff? If it means that your instead of, like, spending time with your kids and watching television and going out to dinner with your wife, you are hunkered down with like a bandolier bullets and a shotgun and a gas maskon, waiting, by the way, for the S.E.C..... the notion that the S.E.C. has at its... has a group of commandos at their disposal who are just waiting to be dispatched to break into homes in suburban Boston and make off with files held by like paranoid hedge fund guys. I mean, the whole thing is just preposterous. So like, this is Levine's point.

Malcolm Gladwell:
You know, Markopolos is right about Madoff, but wrong about life.

Malcolm Gladwell:
And so the solution to the problem we have of making sense of strangers is not to turn yourself into a crazy, paranoid person.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Right. It's to suck it up and accept the fact that every now and again, you're getting cheated. Right. That's a small price to pay for the many wonderful things that comes through being a trusting human being.

Peter Biello:
So do you think the mountain climber would have had something to learn from Harry Markopolos? At least one out of those 48 times?

Malcolm Gladwell:
What did the mountain climber want to do in Cuba? He talked about this length. He wanted to create the most effective group of spies in the whole arsenal, the CIA. So he gathered together his group of spies and trusted them because he wanted to inspire than motivate them. It so happened. So happened that he read into particularly shrewd adversary who managed to pull the wool over his eyes 48 times. But if I'm the mountain climber, even there, I'm not sure it's a bad because he couldn't do his job. He'd been the great paradox of being a. Running a spy network is you can't do your job if you. If you doubt your own spies.

Malcolm Gladwell:
But this is a somewhat I'm, I'm obsessed with spy stories and there's always a moment in every great real spy story. There is always a moment when the very, very best spy ever, because he or she is so good, becomes suspected of treason . So it's an incredibly...like, remember that guy who the CIA just pulled from Russia a few weeks ago or months ago? Whenever we just get news, this came out. We had a spy inside Putin's inner circle who's like, you know, taking photos of Putin's secret darkens with his phone. He'd be doing it for 10 years. We finally pull him. They tried to pull him a couple of years ago and he didn't want to come. Even though, you know, we tried to pull him because we thought he was about to get busted and he didn't want to come for family reasons. And because of that, the CIA was said, oh, wait a minute, maybe he's a double agent. You know, you can't. So. So then they were like, well, maybe everything he's told us over the last 10 years has to be discounted.

Malcolm Gladwell:
So the point is, like the minute you start engaging in these kind of mind games, everything you do is reduced to rubble.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Similarly, there was a one of the greatest spies in the history of Israel was Israel had a guy who was like deep inside the Egyptian government, who told the Israelis in no uncertain terms a series of incredibly valuable info, including he's told them when that when Egypt was going to attack doing a 1973 war to the Yom Kippur War.

But his information was so good and that it was that eventually the Israelis convinced themselves that it was unbelievable that he must be lying to them. Right.

Malcolm Gladwell:
So the point is it's pointless not to trust because you've got the best spy in history of spies who's saying "I'm you know, I'm calling you from the office of the Egyptian president. I'm looking at a order which says they're invading tomorrow. You might want to prepare." And the Israelis like eh...

Peter Biello:
"I don't know..."

Malcolm Gladwell:
"I'm not buying it, it's too good," right?

Malcolm Gladwell:
But in much more prosaic ways.

Malcolm Gladwell:
It doesn't get you as a human being and gets you nowhere to suspect people of trying trick you. The only way... I would give one personal caveat to this.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Back in the day, it involves my father, to whom this book is dedicated, and my father passed away two years ago. So that's why he sort of looms large in it. But my father, who is a mathematician and he was very good with numbers obviously. And back in the day in the grocery store when before they had bar scanners when they would like. Look at that little thing and go like this.

He would count along with the cashier.

Malcolm Gladwell:
And then only if they under charged him, he would correct them. So they'll be like, you know, he's shopping for a family of five to be like one hundred and fifty things in a thing. And the person is going... and at the end he would lean in and say, I actually owe you a dollar fifty more.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Right. So but that wasn't suspicion. That was just by dad playing a pirate trick, a kind of magic petitions parlor trick on some unsuspecting cashier. But the point is, though, that you can't get anywhere in the world if that's the way you operate.

Peter Biello:
There's the idea of deliberate deception. Right. Like what you're describing. And then there's also the idea of transparency, the assumption that the person we are looking at is being completely transparent with their their emotions. And you say facial expressions and you say friends, the show friends as an example of how you know, everybody on that show, when they feel something, they wear it on their face. And there's like you write in this book, you can watch the show with no sound and figure out how those people feel. But people don't. Real people don't act that way. And so that's a different aspect of talking to strangers in that they're not deliberately trying to deceive you. They just not showing you exactly what they feel.

Malcolm Gladwell:
So I did this fun thing. I got an episode of Friends...

Malcolm Gladwell:
And Friends is interesting because if you try and describe the plot of an episode of Friends to somebody, you can't. It's too complicated. It's like this is 17 different things that happen. And they're constantly... there's reversals. And like you said, then Phoebe says to Joey, Joey says this ...

Malcolm Gladwell:
But if you watch an episode of Friends, no one has ever watch an episode of Friends and said, I don't understand what happened. It never happened.

Malcolm Gladwell:
So why is it that a show could be so complicated and on the page but so easy to explain? And the reason is that everything about the emotional life of people on Friends is transparent. And I actually prove this, and I think she might be in the audience. Jennifer, are you in the audience? Oh, yes. So I did this fun thing.

I got an episode of Friends and I found there was a group of psychologists who are expert in registering, analyzing and noting the motions that are on people's faces.

Malcolm Gladwell:
One of those experts is a woman named professor named Jennifer Fugate, who's in the audience, I think.

And so I sent her and she was so fun to play along.

Malcolm Gladwell:
I sent her a clip of I think that probably the first time am I right? The first time someone has sent you a clip of friends to analyze... And I said, here's like two minutes of a Friends episode. Walk me through the facial expressions of the people and tell me what's on the face of Ross when Ross is angry, what's on his face. So wish what she did was she edited this and she revealed to me, sure enough, that when Ross is angry, his face looks angry. When Phoebe is surprised, her jaw drops, her eyes grow wide and her eyebrows go up. When you know, when Rachel is, you know, is has conflicting emotion. Her face shows conflicted emotions.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Everything about that show is completely transparent. That's why you can follow it along. In fact, you can turn the sound off on an episode of Friends, and you will be no further behind that if you listen to the words right. But that's not how real life works in real life. People don't perfectly telegraph their emotions on their faces. And so what happens, I think, is that we watch lots and lots of television shows where Joey, you know, is looks every bit as angry as he feels. And we think that's what happens in the real world. And that's not. And what does that do that leads us to make grave mistakes.

Malcolm Gladwell:
And I have a chapter...that chapter where I talk about Jennifer forgot his work with friends is all about, among other things. Amanda Knox, what is the Amanda Knox case about? It is about this! It is about a woman who gets falsely accused of a crime.

Peter Biello:
The murder of her roommate.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Yeah. Murdering her roommate in Perugia, Italy, and jailed for four years. Why?

Malcolm Gladwell:
Because her facial expressions did not match the expectations that Italian law enforcement and the British tabloid press had of someone whose roommate had just been murdered. They thought, yes, they thought if your roommate's been murdered, you're supposed to look and behave a certain way. And she didn't. And they said, oh, she must be guilty.

Peter Biello:
She didn't act sad.

Malcolm Gladwell:
She didn't seem to be sad and seem grief stricken. She seemed angry or weirded out or any number of things. She's just she's just a slightly atypical, gawky, immature teenager. She's not a murderous. And yet she goes to jail for four years. And it makes you wonder how many people in our society are wrongfully judged with catastrophic consequences because they fail to conform to our naive expectations. About what?

Malcolm Gladwell:
About what emotion supposed to look like?

Malcolm Gladwell:
No. The reason why this is interesting from the standpoint of talking to strangers is that if I know you, I don't make that mistake. So if you and I have known each other for 30 years, I become aware of all of the ways your facial expressions are idiosyncratic. So. So maybe you're someone who when you're super, super interesting, interested in something, you actually look bored and I begin to understand. Oh, you look bored. That must mean you're interested. Right.

Malcolm Gladwell:
And I am. I give you I cut I cut you some slack.

Peter Biello:
This is a hypothetical.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Hypothetical, hypothetical. But if I don't know you, I say, oh, you you're bored, right. And you're not. You're in fact, passionately engaged.

Peter Biello:
I am passionately engaged right now. I just want everybody to know that. One of the things that is that makes it difficult for people to read each other's emotions as alcohol, as you write here. And you describe it as creating a sense of myopia, myopic. Can you explain what you meant by that?

Malcolm Gladwell:
Yes. So I wanted to do a chapter on campus sexual assaults in his book, because it struck me that if I was interested in writing about how conversations between strangers go awry. That was a really big category because a lot of campuses, not all of them, but a lot of campus assaults begin.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Campus sexual assaults begin with a benign encounter of two people, meet under relatively normal circumstances and start a conversation. And then at some point later in the evening, you know, something terrible happens, a crime is committed or something else. And so I wanted to understand, well, why are these things happening? When you look at the numbers, then, you know, even the very best and conservative numbers suggest to kept that sexual assaults on campus are way, way, way, way, way out of control. Right. Huge.

Malcolm Gladwell:
And when I went to talk to people who study them, they all said exactly the same thing, which is like five minutes into the conversation. They would say, well, you have to talk about alcohol. Right.

Malcolm Gladwell:
I was like, oh, I didn't know that. And they're like, yeah, this is a problem. Not wholly the result of alcohol, but in overwhelmingly these are cases about people who are drunk. They're not too sober people. They're two drunken people. And what alcohol does to you is of enormous significance in this question. So what does alcohol do to you? How does it affect your ability to have a conversation with someone on a dance floor?

Malcolm Gladwell:
And our common understanding of alcohol is that alcohol disinhibits, meaning that what alcohol does is it strips away all of the kind of surface constraints and reveals the real you. So you'll say how many of us have come back from hanging out with some friend who was a little bit tipsy or more, and they told us a series of things that wouldn't otherwise have told us. And our assumption is, oh, what they were telling us is true because they were drunk and the truth could come out right.

Malcolm Gladwell:
So you think you seeing when you see someone drunk, you you really think you're seeing is an authentic version of themself, a more authentic version.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Nothing could be further from the truth.

Malcolm Gladwell:
The opposite is true. What drunkenness does is it shuts down your higher cognitive processes and leaves behind someone, a person who can no longer think about tomorrow, can only think about right now and can no longer think of anything other than the thing directly in front of their face. So it turns you into someone who is myopic.

Malcolm Gladwell:
So Malcolm, the real Malcolm is someone like all of us who does who considers what to do based in part of its long term consequences. Right? That's who I am. I'm someone who takes long term consequences seriously. That's what all of us are. So it means to be human being. Alcohol destroys that and makes you someone who only thinks about the short term. That is not your real you. Right. So now when you think about it, so two drunken teenagers who are having a conversation there, they are not themselves in a conversation. So question number one is if they are not themselves, how can either of them consent to sexual activity?

Malcolm Gladwell:
Consent is based on the premise that the person consenting is the real person. Right. But if you're not yourself, how can you consent? Problem number one. Problem number two, is it if the person who is drunk is a departure from your true self, then you raise the very real possibility that you are capable of doing things while drunk that you would never do while sober.

Malcolm Gladwell:
And that is the part of this that's getting lost that we need to be telling young men most of all that if you get super wasted, you are vastly increasing your odds of committing criminal acts, acts that you would never dream of doing while sober. Right. And if you don't understand that when you make the decision to drink, then you are putting your own future at risk.

Malcolm Gladwell:
And also the future of others at risk. Whave somehow lost this notion we have now...It's fascinating to look at all this of survey data that asks college kids questions about sexual assault, other things, and then ask them what do they think the role of alcohol is in this?

Malcolm Gladwell:
And they're indifferent to it. They don't think alcohol is a big deal in this. They don't think of it in any way is implicated in this problem.

And that is bananas. Right.

You can't get blackout drunk and expect there to be a benign set of consequences.

Malcolm Gladwell:
And I think we are you know, when we look for reasons why all of these harmless encounters are turning so badly awry in campuses. We've got to start with. Oh, and the other thing I would say, the last thing I see this and I could go on and on about this I feel very strongly about it, is that I think that people of my generation and your generation vastly we misunderstand how much the cultural drinking has changed in the last 10 or 15 years on campuses.

Malcolm Gladwell:
It's not like it was when ... I'm beginning to sound like the old guy on the couch. Right. But, you know, we have the data. There is a very, very good data on this. And drinking is very, very different. Fewer people are drinking now than used to drink. But those who do drink are drinking far more. And particularly women are drinking far more than they used to. They are now. In many cases, matching men drink for drink, which is pushing them into blackout territory, pushing them into blackout territory. And physiologically, it is madness for women to match men drink for drink. They don't know the differences between men and women are so great that that is essentially creating an outcome where women are vastly more inebriated than men in these settings. And that's not good.

Peter Biello:
This is a really difficult thing to write about. I mean, the example that you used here, one of the examples is Brock Turner.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Wait a second. Why is it difficult to write about?

Peter Biello:
I feel it's difficult because of the climate that we are in and the difficulty I have faced, frankly, in finding a way to get at the idea that if you talk about sexual assault in this way, in the context of alcohol... Some will say, wait a minute, we don't want to give people like Brock Turner a pass and just say, oh, he was drunk and he wouldn't have done this if he weren't drunk.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Why does that give him a pass?

Peter Biello:
I don't, well see. I don't know. I don't know why that would.

Malcolm Gladwell:
It's the opposite. It's like, dude, you made a decision to go crazy that night with alcohol. You need to own up to the consequences. Nobody made you drink that much. You did. Right. And you are just in the same way. No one. The observation that someone who is drunkenly driving, we don't use the fact of their inebriation as an excuse. No, we hold them accountable like this is sorry to jump on you in this, but so much of people's hesitancy to tackle really crucial topics right now is based on a fantasy about how those comments will be received.

Malcolm Gladwell:
I don't think people will jump to this conclusion having read that chapter. I don't think it's tricky to talk about the role of alcohol.

Malcolm Gladwell:
I think it's really straightforward. You get wasted. Bad things happen. That is the most kind of straightforward common sense. And you are responsible for your decision to get wasted.

Malcolm Gladwell:
And so you need to be, you know... You can't, you can't go around inhibiting what we're willing to say, particularly as journalists, based on fears about how it'll be received. But that's just that's an abrogation of if we have one responsibility as journalists, it is to tell people what we believe to be true, right?

Peter Biello:
Certainly. Yeah. Well, I was curious about what kind of conversations you may have had with your editor about that part. Was it a. Was it. Well. So I've discussed now subject.

Malcolm Gladwell:
The one thing the one thing I will say in support of your comment is that there is a way to have written that chapter such that it would legitimately have been perceived as victim blaming or excusing. So I had to be very careful that I didn't write it in that way.

Peter Biello:
That's what I mean by it. It's tricky. You don't want to say something that is there, rightfully so. A lot of sensitivity around the subject. And you as a writer have to imagine all the possible people out there who may feel this more strongly than someone like me who has never experienced sexual assault. So I would not experience this chapter in the way that someone who has had that experience.

Malcolm Gladwell:
There's a line you have to walk and you can't wander on either side of the line. And so I did go. I rewrote that chapter more than any other chapter in the book. And I put together a panel of 21 year old women and had them read it and give me comments. And, you know, I. So you've got to be careful because you're right. It's tricky. But I don't think. But it's not impossibly tricky.

Peter Biello:
No, you pulled it off I mean. Well, I'm curious now, what were some of the comments you received from that panel?

Peter Biello:
Do you remember?

Malcolm Gladwell:
Actually it was it was actually a really, really, really interesting exercise because one of the things you discover so, you know, as someone who... any journalist knows this, that your first, second, third, fourth and fifth drafts typically do not represent what you believe. In other words, the reason you write is both to figure out what you believe and also figure out how to write what you believe and it takes awhile. So what happened? What was really interesting was I wrote an early draft of that chapter and I gave it first to my assistant who was a twenty three year old woman just recently graduated from college, and she pointed to all the different ways in which my male biases were on display, and without meaning to, the early draft, probably did veer off into the into the bad area of that line.

Malcolm Gladwell:
And she pointed out to me, and had I not given it to her, I wouldn't have seen it.

Malcolm Gladwell:
And so it alerted me to the fact, like even under the best of intentions, you cannot without help escape your biases. So all writers know this, but we tend to forget it from time to time. And it's really, really useful to be reminded of the fact that bias is real. And if you're writing about these kinds of cases, you will write it from the perspective of your of your gender first. And that's not necessarily what you want us. Right. But that's just how it begins. So I was. That's those are the things. These aren't sort of macro things. We're just going to need choice of language, its emphasis. It's all kinds of the way the argument flows, the. Yeah. Like just kind of a little bit because when... yeah. Little kind of nuances things. And I think that I corrected most of those in that chapter.

Malcolm Gladwell:
I don't have any anxiety about that chapter being misperceived.

Peter Biello:
Well while we're on the heavy stuff, I want to ask you about the chapter you wrote about Jerry Sandusky. And I think for me reading that the focus was more on the people who had suspicions or people who thought they saw something.

Peter Biello:
And the chapter seemed to be trying to figure out what level of culpability those people had. Yeah.

Peter Biello:
What do you think? What's your thinking on those people? I mean, there are various different stories, but where did your thinking land?

Malcolm Gladwell:
My inclination is that the decision made by the prosecutors in the Penn State. So this is we're referring to the this notorious case of a couple of years ago when a football coach at Penn State was found to be a serial child molester.

Malcolm Gladwell:
And and having after sort of years and years and years of predation, he's finally caught and convicted and put in jail where upon the prosecutors turn their attention to the leadership of Penn State and prosecute the leadership as well, including the president of the university.

Malcolm Gladwell:
And my focus and the chapter is, was it appropriate to also pursue criminal charges against the leadership of the school? In other words, can you hold people in positions of power? Under what circumstances can you help people in positions of authority responsible for not understanding the strangers in their midst?

Malcolm Gladwell:
And a pedophile is but is a classic definition of a stranger. A pedophile is someone who expends an enormous amount of effort and ingenuity on hiding their dark impulses from those around them. They wake up and they spend their entire day thinking about this problem. How can I pursue my desires without getting caught?

Malcolm Gladwell:
So, you know, can we blame people in positions of authority if they fall prey to that deception? And my conclusion was in this specific instance of Penn State, I think not. I think it was a travesty to go after. The leadership of Penn State in the case of Larry Nassar and Michigan State. I think the opposite. I think that the evidence was clear enough that they ought to have acted way sooner. But those are very, very different kind of cases.

Malcolm Gladwell:
But I think it's important, though, to understand that it is a dangerous road to get on. To start acting in a punitive way towards those who are the victims of deception. So do you put the victims of Bernie Madoff in prison for being fooled by Madoff?

Malcolm Gladwell:
The parents in the case of Larry Nassar. Many of the parents of the young girls who were being abused by Larry Nassar were in the room while their children were being molested in the room.

Malcolm Gladwell:
And there's a famous instance where one of the mothers observed that as Larry Nassar was treating her 11 year old daughter, he had an erection. She saw the erection. She was a medical doctor. She did nothing. Do you put her in jail? No, you don't. Why don't you put her in jail? Because you understand that the complex psychological mechanisms that all of us have that make it very hard for us to reach that kind of conclusion about a stranger. Right. We default to truth. We want to believe the best. She explained it away, as one does, because to acknowledge that you had allowed your daughter to be treated by a pedophile.

Malcolm Gladwell:
I mean, the enormity of that is overwhelming. Right. So what is the appropriate attitude to have towards the parent in that instance? To have compassion for the parent. They have to live with that fact every day for the rest of their lives. But you don't put them in jail for negligence. Right. And you also understand that. Oh, my God. There but for the grace of God, go I. We are conditioned as human beings to be... I mean, the mountain climber was fooled by, you know, the savviest most brilliant guy in the world was fooled by the...We could easily be fooled. And to pretend that somehow being fooled is evidence of venality or negligence or incompetence is just crazy. So I think we do need to be really, really, really careful.

Malcolm Gladwell:
And we need to have compassion for the victims of deceivers as opposed to being filled with this kind of of of self-righteousness.

Peter Biello:
So here's here's an example I wanted to run by you because you can help us sort of think a little bit more practically about figuring out the intentions of the person, the stranger before us.

Peter Biello:
So let's say let's say you're dating, right? You're dating someone and someone and the person you're dating is is relatively new to you and you sit down for a conversation over coffee or whatever, and this person confesses to you and says, look, the past two or three, We'll say for this example, three, the past three people I've been in a long term relationship with, I have cheated on. I am incredibly remorseful over it. And I'm and I'm never going to do it again. And from where you sit, this person confessing this to you looks really remorseful about it.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Wait this is on a first date?

Peter Biello:
No. No, let's say it's not a first date. Ah.

Malcolm Gladwell:
I was going to say, you must have very different experience of first dates than I do.

Peter Biello:
No, no. This is totally hypothetical.

Peter Biello:
But yeah. So this person has, on the one hand, sort of made a confession that maybe if they didn't, you'd never you'd never know. But also if you looked at them on paper and you had the state in front of you, that would give you pause. So how do you evaluate how do you weigh the resumé, so to speak, versus the remorse that you think you see and and the demonstration of honesty in Front of you. How would you go about weighing that?

Malcolm Gladwell:
Well, Jennifer Fugate in the audience would tell you if we asked her, she would ask the question: What does remorse look like? So all of us have a notion of what it means to be remorseful. But if you actually interrogate that notion, you'll discover that there is no signature set of facial expressions, that signature that signaled remorse, remorse is an incredibly amorphous emotion. And secondly, to the extent we can identify what remorse looks like, we have no reason to believe that are a remorseful look. Matches are truly remorseful feeling on the inside. So if someone looks remorseful in this context is no reason to believe them. And if they have a long track record of cheating, I suppose common sense would say.

Malcolm Gladwell:
If, what's the expression? Walks like a duck...

Peter Biello:
Or maybe a leopard doesn't change his spots, so to speak.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Yes.

Peter Biello:
Yeah.

Malcolm Gladwell:
There's a note as the number of I think you go to show. The is there. That could be employed to clarify the situation. But I would be more concerned about. I'm sort of but I'm intrigued by the notion that prison is telling you that they've cheated in their last three. I just find that kind of fascianting, like Woa. I will be soon off like well, like if you're willing to tell that, like is that you know, is that in your, you know, Match.com profile, you know, under a personal interest, cheating on significant others, feeling bad afterwards?

Peter Biello:
I would like to transition from from from cheaters to two presidential candidates because we in New Hampshire, where we have access to them here in New Hampshire and we see them up close and we and we try our best to sort of read their expressions in their tones of voice when they are here talking to New Hampshire voters. But they also have a resumé. They have a vote. A lot of them do. A lot of them have a voting record. A lot of them have a history that we can sort of scrutinize. And so is do we kind of use that same evaluative muscle when we're looking at these presidential candidates? I mean, should we should we stop going these events because they don't mean anything? And just like look at how they voted on Congress dot gov or something like that total.

Malcolm Gladwell:
I mean, the one thing we should not do is conduct debates and judge them on the basis of how they perform in a debate like that's absurd.

Malcolm Gladwell:
The job of being president United States is not based on your ability to shine in a multi-person debate under the lights in front of a Inquisitor from CNN. I mean, it's the most contrived... like rule number one of picking someone for a job is the criteria used to judge them on should match the things that you are looking for in the job. Right. You know, when you're trying to pick someone who to be a receiver in the NFL, you want to know how well the catch passes. You don't particularly care about, you know, how well they I don't know how good their essays are or we don't ask both draftees to write position papers on the slant route. Right. See how they how well they express their feelings about that particular football play.

Malcolm Gladwell:
But that seems to be what we're doing here, like does it really matter whether they give a snappy answer? In fact, the whole job of being president is not about giving snappy answers. It's about being thoughtful and careful.

Malcolm Gladwell:
And so a really fun game that I feel we should play right now is... let's imagine what a better... So, you know, these people. You know, you're a reporter you've met them all the time.

Peter Biello:
I've met a few.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Let's figure out, so clearly debate. Bad idea, crazy. Let's come up with a better idea. Do you have any better suggestions?

Peter Biello:
I do not.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Okay. I thought about this. Let me let me start.

Malcolm Gladwell:
So what about this? What about: I'm going to give serious one and a not so serious one. The not so serious one sort of intrigues me.

Malcolm Gladwell:
What are we interested in when it comes to these people? These are strangers, right. And right now, the whole notion of the electoral season is based on the completely erroneous premise that we can get to know a stranger over the next couple of months and make an extraordinarily important determination in that period, which is whether they are fit to be president. United States. And everything that I have come to believe after writing this book suggests to me that that is a fool's errand. So let's do a better job.

Malcolm Gladwell:
One thing I would be really fun to do would be to give them really hard, complex, real world problems. So we say to them. Let's imagine we construct a scenario, about a...I don't know a foreign policy crisis in 2022 involving... name two countries, and we lay it all out to them and we say, how would you deal with it? You have six hours and you need to send us a videotape in six hours of you giving a 20 minute presentation on how you intend to deal with this crisis. We put all the answers online.

Malcolm Gladwell:
So they have six hours. They can consult whoever they want. They're asked to formulate a thoughtful response and we can judge them. That's a very real world scenario where they would be presented with a crisis that need to respond to quickly. What we want to know is do they think well under time pressure, can they put together an effective team of advisers who can help them? And can they communicate effectively to the American people under those circumstances? Right.

Malcolm Gladwell:
That seems to me. And then we play the videos. Right. And we give them five different scenarios, one a week for five weeks until we have a library for every candidate. And you go in the leisure of your evening and you look at all of the videos and then you make it....Here's a better idea.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Here it is, sort of a lot more trivial and frivolous, but I think also useful. I really want to know how they will they play certain games like it.

Peter Biello:
Like while you were talking, I was thinking escape room.

Malcolm Gladwell:
No, no, I was thinking Scrabble.

Malcolm Gladwell:
In my experience, Scrabble is enormously revelatory. At least it is in the Gladwell family. And so the idea of splitting up into groups of four and having them play extended games of Scrabble, which are all videotaped and live streamed. And I want to know, like everyone say about Joe Biden's fitness. I'm sorry. If he can't do well in Scrabble, I'm going to worry about his fitness. If all of his words like four letters long. and he has no double word scores, I'm gonna be, like Joe, like a demanding job. You just scored like 25 on your Scrabble. Like there's a problem, right? Good talk. I just think that will be useful.

Peter Biello:
Well, Malcolm Gladwell, thank you so much for being here on Writers on a New England Stage. We really appreciate it.