We’re only human — and do not always notice red flags

In an effort to stop binge-watching television, I have been peppering my entertainment routine with some non-fiction books. Most recently, I picked up the audiobook Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, by Malcolm Gladwell.

As a student of human behaviour, I’ve always been a fan of Gladwell’s work. He talks about three main human behaviours, including: default to truth, transparency, and coupling, to explain why it takes us so long to pick up on “bad apples” in society, among other themes. I chose the audiobook over the e-book or hardcopy, as Gladwell has structured the audiobook like a podcast, with interviewees speaking for themselves where possible.

There’s content about Hitler, the child-abuse scandal at Penn State with Jerry Sandusky, Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff, Larry Nasser the doctor who sexually abused female gymnasts, and problems with current policing strategies. He gets particularly passionate about the proportional injustice against black people at the hands of the police.

It’s a solid read but, for me, it was an epiphany that I had about the default to truth concept, that made me want to write about it. According to psychologist Tim Levine, because we are social creatures, we tend to trust others. Gladwell says: “Default to Truth becomes an issue when we are forced to choose between two alternatives, one of which is likely, and the other of which is impossible to imagine. Default to truth biases us in favour of the most likely interpretation … To assume the best about another is the trait that has created modern society.”

While the theory is discussed in a book titled Talking to Strangers, I think it is most relevant to me with people whom I wouldn’t call strangers. In some bad  relationships I stayed in for too long, people have asked me: “Didn’t you see a red flag?”

Gladwell says we shouldn’t be blaming ourselves for failed relationships involving liars, because: “Belief is not the absence of doubt; you believe someone because you don’t have enough doubts about them.” When faced with something unbelievable, or a lie, we tend to rationalize it away.

Default to truth is why parents often don’t believe their children the first time they say they are being sexually abused by someone they know, because it is unimaginable. Default to truth also applies to those who lie and steal from companies. People ask how they missed the signs. Yes, hindsight is 20/20, and yes, there are always signs, but not enough signs to act against (usually) rational explanations.

I had doubt in past relationships. In fact, more times than I care to admit I heard myself saying or thinking: “Is this normal? Am I crazy?” Gladwell would agree that we acknowledged that there were red flags, but were there enough red flags?

This helps me to understand why so many high achievers end up in abusive relationships. They have a higher threshold of the number of red flags that need to be dropped on the field before being triggered out of the truth default, to finally flip the switch to concluding that all is not right in the state of Denmark. As problem solvers, we rationalize away some of the most heinous lies, because we want to believe our partners, we want to believe in our relationships, and it’s often easier than facing an ugly truth.

For all those people who criticize us for not noticing the red flags, Gladwell would say that in defaulting to truth, we’re only being human.

In case you are looking for a free and easy book accessing solution, I use our library’s free audiobook and e-book app called Libby to access titles like this one.

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