The Accidental Art of Deception

I went to hear Malcolm Gladwell speak last night about his new book, Talking to Strangers. I must confess, I gave the purchase of the tickets to this event very little thought–not only have I not read the book, I hadn’t even read the blurb about it. I just like Malcolm Gladwell.

I wasn’t disappointed. I’ve never heard him speak at a live event, and he quickly launched into a quirky, charmingly flail-y soliloquy about his writing process. I took notes about his affinity for memoirs of retired mid-level bureaucrats, who fall in the perfect confluence of the “Interesting vs. Constrained” Scale* according to Gladwell’s estimation.

It took a minute for me to gather that he had written a book about deception and miscommunication. The first point he made was how surprisingly easy it is for humans to deceive each other. Perpetrators of massive deceptions are generally not diabolical geniuses (think, Bernie Madoff). Victims of deception are often not naive, sheltered individuals. It’s just as often the dumb but bold liar that pulls the wool over the eyes of a sophisticated and intelligent victim (or victims) with shocking effectiveness.

This illustrates the second point of his talk, and the one that really resonated with me. Evolution doesn’t select for skill in spotting deception, but rather, it selects for trust as our default response to others. The price of being human sometimes is being deceived.

This makes sense as Gladwell describes it. You don’t want to live the experience of the person who is proficient at spotting deception, because it’s likely to indicate you see deception everywhere and happen to get it right from time-to-time. Gladwell tells the story of Harry Markopolos, who was seemingly the only person to spot Madoff’s, in hindsight, obvious fraud. To hear Gladwell tell it, Markopolos was a paranoid kook who slept with a gun because he was convinced the SEC would assassinate him for exposing their failure to properly investigate Madoff.

My personal experience with this idea feels very immediate and close to the surface. I feel acutely aware of my tendency to take other people at face value, despite concrete proof that I’ve had the wool pulled over my own eyes. I feel almost belligerent about it. In a related way, it makes me feel nearly radical about transparency, about preserving other people’s ability to trust me. But that desire for radical transparency is deeply tempered by fear. That’s part of what drives the content of this blog. It reflects the internal conflict I feel; my first instinct is to hide every weakness in a safe, closed box, which wars with my impulse to fling the lid off the box and smash the sides letting every messy part of myself spill out.

In my mind, the one take away is this: Our human experience, our functional human experience, is necessarily premised on the assumption that we can and should trust our fellow humans. Trust flows both ways, and I’m interested in continuing to challenge myself to trust when it’s hard, and earn trust when it’s even harder.

*Imagine a graph which has “Interesting” on the vertical axis and “Constrained” on the horizontal axis. The life experience of someone like Barack Obama will be very high on the “Interesting” axis, but also very high on the “Constrained” axis– i.e., he won’t be able to talk about the most interesting of his experiences, so his memoir is not that interesting to Gladwell. Your next door neighbor, for example, will be very unconstrained in telling her life story, but it may not be so interesting. So, again, not such an interesting memoir.

2 thoughts on “The Accidental Art of Deception

  1. jcdad

    “It’s far easier to con someone than it is to convince them they’ve been conned.”

    I wish I could remember where I read this recently. I found it to be a blinding flash of truth and I now see evidence of it daily. Once people have been conned they will even lean toward defending the con-person rather than admit they misplaced their trust.


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