Given the choice to believe a stranger or not, we choose to trust, give them the benefit of the doubt
We are constantly interacting with people whom we don’t know well and our psychological clumsiness, preconceived notions and over-reliance on gut leads to misunderstandings at work, in social situations and even on social media.
In his new book, Talking To Strangers: What We Should Know About The People We Don’t Know, Malcolm Gladwell explains why we make colossal judgment errors by giving examples of Amanda Knox, the American student who was convicted of murdering her roommate in Italy and later acquitted; Sandra Bland, the African-American woman who was found hanged in a jail cell in Texas, three days after being arrested during a traffic stop; even Lord Halifax, who believed that Adolf Hitler had no intentions of starting a world war.
Gladwell argues, using theorist Timothy R. Levine’s theory, that we have a “default to truth". That is, our “operating assumption is that the people we are dealing with are honest".
Levine developed the “truth-default" theory, which suggests given the choice to believe a stranger or not, almost all of us choose to believe, to trust, to give the benefit of the doubt. This holds true for FBI agents, judges and intelligence specialists despite their rigorous training.
If we are too naively unquestioning, should we compensate with a healthy dose of paranoia and scepticism in our daily lives? Absolutely not. Doing so will bring the entire economy to a halt. Oxford researcher Rachel Botsman suggests that almost all technology-led productivity gains are enabled by leaps of trust. We travel, date, rent, work and life with people we know almost nothing about. Imagine life without Uber, Airbnb and other platform economy wonders.
Where trust lies
Research by think-tank Pew suggests that people are trusting governments and big institutions, like banks and religious organizations, much less than they used to. In fact, institutional trust is at an all time low and is making way for peer-to-peer trust, which is far more accessible and approachable.
I see this in action every day at my workplace, where millennials around the world seek mentoring and career advice from peers. They are often strangers to begin with, but the process of helping each other build careers creates a strong bond that often leads to new, mutually beneficial opportunities over time.
Can things go awry when we trust strangers? Absolutely. As Gladwell’s book suggests, we often pay a price for our naiveté but at a macro level, the advantages of giving strangers the benefit of doubt are greater than the price we pay when trusting them backfires.
One person who did not subscribe to Levine’s truth-default theory was an independent fraud investigator named Harry Markopolos, who tried to get the authorities to investigate Bernie Madoff on numerous occasions.
He was so distrusting of everyone that when he had an opportunity to meet with a prosecutor to discuss Madoff’s case, he chose to leave the information anonymously. He was convinced that both Madoff and the government were out to get him and he spent months on end without proper sleep.
Gladwell says that if everyone on Wall Street behaved like Markopolos, there would be no fraud on Wall Street but the air would be so thick with suspicion and paranoia that there would also be no Wall Street.
A useful mental model to deal with strangers is Hanlon’s razor, which suggests that we should never attribute to malice what can be explained by carelessness or stupidity.
Judgment errors and misunderstandings are bound to happen but we can avoid the side effects if we train ourselves to give the benefit of doubt to strangers, as Hanlon’s razor prescribes.
Subconsciously we expect strangers to be transparent and reveal their thoughts in their demeanour, body language and actions. But they don’t, at least not reliably. People who are nervous and otherwise guilty looking are just as likely to be telling the truth as they are to be lying. And the cool and collected ones may simply be good at the confidence game.
Gladwell has a simple formula for dealing with strangers, an adaptation of Hanlon’s razor: trust people with caution and humility. Caution because things can backfire and humility because we are not particularly good at reading strangers.
Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.