This was the first audiobook I've listented to - it felt like listening to a documentary where I’m not missing the lack of images at all (plus better because at 3.5 speed). Only Malcolm Gladwell can discuss such difficult topics while remaining unapologetically yet respectfully rational in today’s hyper emotional world. He is a breath of fresh air and hope for the continued existence of reason and critical thinking. The chapter on alcohol should be a must read for every teen. Facial expressions and their lack of universality had me mindblown.

Actionable takeaways:

  • Try to be less hypocritical - you're not that special. Remember how you think others couldn't understand you and your complexity before you start giving them advice on their life

  • Be a bit more judgmental of your own ability to judge others and their intentions, we're all pretty bad at spotting a lier

  • If you have small doubts about something (and it is important) it's good to follow your hunch for a while; we only truly fall out of our truth default mode when our cause for suspicion becomes definitive - so don't wait for this. Smarter people have been much worse fooled.

  • If you're sad and you drink in a happy environment - you'll become happy; if in a sad/lonely environement - you'll become sadder; use this either way

  • Just never have an alcohol-induced blackout

  • We tend to think people who are not caught or reported by their coworkers/family are all part of some conspiracy, while it doesn't at all need to be the case - it may be that they have all been genuinely fooled/haven't passed the threshold of genuine doubt - don't judge them, don't be them

  • Be aware of the power of facial-expression communication; it's an easy tool to use to get your point across, but also be critical of how much you are using it to make decisions about other's truthfullness and intentions

  • We're all pretty bad at spotting liers, but that doesn't mean we need to switch into a permanent doubting mode, it is probably that by assuming truth by default we are kinder, nicer, having better interactions with others, at the expense of some negative events - which would still be better than being hostile and doubting with no reason

Hypocritical Theory of Mind

We think we're special to the point of hypocritical

The conviction that we know others better than they know us—and that we may have insights about them they lack (but not vice versa)—leads us to talk when we would do well to listen and to be less patient than we ought to be when others express the conviction that they are the ones who are being misunderstood or judged unfairly. The same convictions can make us reluctant to take advice from others who cannot know our private thoughts, feelings, interpretations of events, or motives, but all too willing to give advice to others based on our views of their past behavior, without adequate attention to their thoughts, feelings, interpretations, and motives. Indeed, the biases documented here may create a barrier to the type of exchanges of information, and especially to the type of careful and respectful listening, that can go a long way to attenuating the feelings of frustration and resentment that accompany interpersonal and intergroup conflict.

Truth, Lies and Facial Expressions

We're little better than useless at distinguishing truth from lies

Levine had people watch twenty-two liars and twenty-two truth-tellers. The viewers correctly identified the liars 56 percent of the time.

Massive misjudgements of Hitler from intelligent people who met him again and again, with a lot at stake - we are terrible at judging others and when they are being honest or dishonest

The account of Chamberlain and Hitler is taken from a number of sources, but chiefly David Faber’s excellent Munich, 1938: Appeasement and World War II “so unconventional…breath away,” that 70 percent of the country thought Chamberlain’s trip was a “good thing for peace” and the toast to Chamberlain’s health, “no signs of insanity…beyond a certain point,” “between a social gathering and a rough house,” “mixture of astonishment, repugnance, and compassion.”

The people who were wrong about Hitler were the ones who had talked with him for hours. I suppose that makes a certain sense: you need to be exposed to a fraud before you can fall for a fraud. On the other hand, Hitler’s dupes were all intelligent men, well experienced in world affairs, with plenty of suspicions going into their meeting. Why didn’t whatever extra information they could gather on Hitler from a face-to-face meeting lead to an improvement in the accuracy of their opinion of him?

We believe that the information we gather from a personal interaction is uniquely valuable.

Computers (AI) are beyond better than humans at deciding who is least likely to commit crimes in bail.

The people on the computer’s list were 25 percent less likely to commit a crime while awaiting trial than the 400,000 people released by the judges of New York City. 25 percent! In the bake-off, machine destroyed man.

“They released 48.5 percent of them! “Many of the defendants flagged by the algorithm as high risk are treated by the judge as if they were low risk,” Team Mullainathan concluded in a particularly devastating passage. “Performing this exercise suggests that judges are not simply setting a high threshold for detention but are mis-ranking defendants.…The marginal defendants they select to detain are drawn from throughout the entire predicted risk distribution.” Translation: the bail decisions of judges are all over the place.”

Facial expressions are not universal - there are tribes who would grossly misinterpret other's facial expressions. We use the 'classic ones on TV' as a metre, and when we don't see them on other's faces, we think they cannot be feeling what they may be. We also use the classic facial expressions to get our idea across because we know other's understand them. In the study where they put people in a room and later shocked them, none of their facial expressions showed 'classic' genuine shock even though they really were.

The Fore were really good at correctly identifying happy faces, but only about half of them correctly identified the “fear” face as being an expression of fear. Forty-five percent of them thought the surprised face was a fearful face. Fifty-six percent of them read sadness as anger. This is universalism?

“Emotions are…made and not triggered.” Each of us, over the course of our lives, builds our own set of operating instructions for our face, based on the culture and environment we inhabit. The face is a symbol of how different human beings are, not how similar we are, which is a big problem if your society has created a rule for understanding strangers based on reading faces.”

We fall out of our truth default mode only when our cause for suspicion becomes definitive.

You don’t believe someone because you don’t have doubts about them, you believe then because you do not have enough doubts about them.

Police and Racism

So what does Johnson find when he examines this idea in the light of real-world interactions on Cops? Are the innocent more likely to look an officer in the eye than the guilty? Johnson calculated the total number of seconds of eye contact per minute of footage. Black people who are perfectly innocent are actually less likely to look police in the eye than black people who are suspected of a crime.

Now let’s look at white people: The first thing to note here is that Caucasians on Cops, as a group, look police officers in the eye far more than black people do. In fact, whites suspected of a crime spend the most time, of all four groups, looking the police officer in the eye. If you use gaze aversion as a cue to interpret someone’s credibility, you’re going to be a lot more suspicious of black people than white people. Far worse, you’re going to be most suspicious of all of perfectly innocent African Americans.

“The mere fact of variation of expressions may be suggestive of untruthfulness, where the lack of such a variation may be suggestive of truthfulness” (Reid et al., Essentials of the Reid Technique, p. 99). This is a version of the common idea that when someone is guilty or being evasive, they smile a lot. Surveys of police officers show that people in law enforcement are very attuned to “frequent smiling” as a sign that something is awry. To use the language of poker, it’s considered a “tell.” Here is Johnson’s Cops analysis of smiling. This time I’ve included Johnson’s data on Hispanics as well. Once again, the rule of thumb relied upon by many police officers has it exactly backward. The people who smile the most are innocent African Americans. The people who smile the least are Hispanic suspects. The only reasonable conclusion from that chart is that black people, when they are on Cops, smile a lot, white people smile a little bit less, and Hispanic people don’t smile much at all. Let’s do one more: halting speech. If someone is trying to explain themselves, and they keep nervously stopping and starting, we take that as a sign of evasion and deception.

Sucides and Resources

You would assume that as carbon monoxide was removed from homes, the rates of suicide would remain constant and alternative ways to commit suicide would replace them. In reality, suicides fell, so this suggests that the decision to commit suicide may depend on the available resourses.

The alternative possibility is that suicide is a behavior coupled to a particular context. Coupling is the idea that behaviors are linked to very specific circumstances and conditions.

Sure enough, this is exactly what seems to be the case, according to a very clever bit of detective work by psychologist Richard Seiden. Seiden followed up on 515 people who had tried to jump from the bridge between 1937 and 1971, but had been unexpectedly restrained. Just 25 of those 515 persisted in killing themselves some other way. Overwhelmingly, the people who want to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge at a given moment want to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge only at that given moment.

“Look at how suicides from carbon-monoxide poisonings declined in the years after 1975. It’s just like the chart of British suicides at the end of the town-gas era. See Figure 4 in Neil B. Hampson and James R. Holm, “Suicidal carbon monoxide poisoning has decreased with controls on automobile emissions.”


Alcohol puts you at the mercy of your surrounding environment (if depressed, you’ll be happy drunk at a game and sad drunk alone at a bar).

In blackouts you are in an especially vulnerable position because you are losing your memory, so you cannot make informed decisions if you don’t have the information form a few minutes ago.

Acknowledging the dangers of alcohol is not excusing the behaviour of perpetrators, it is preventing young men from becoming perpetrators.