Social media has launched a zillion conspiracy theories and their believers. The big question is why so many seemingly reasonable, ordinary people are so caught up in these fanciful notions.
Why are there so many gullible Canadians who buy the notion of a new world order spawned by the World Economic Forum? They are so convinced in the “truth” of whatever crazy notions have captured their interest, they have no problem promoting and expounding on their favourite theory. Case in point: Waiting in a seemingly unending lineup for a minor medical procedure, the woman seated next to me “shared” her theories on the sexual proclivities of the Canadian prime minister and the American president. When I looked at her with incredulity, she announced she had “proof” sent to her by “a trusted source.”
This was not some raving madman waving a F*** Trudeau sign or whatever mouth-breather is driving around Calgary with the same “suggestion” painted across his windshield for all to read. This was an ordinary, well-dressed, well-spoken, middle-class, middle-aged woman who could well have been my next-door neighbour. She had, apparently, no other concern at that moment than accompanying her husband to the hospital.
She is not alone in believing whatever scandalous behaviours of which our politicians are being accused.
Why would I not give her the benefit of the doubt? Simple. I learned from the best many years ago, but it took Malcolm Gladwell’s 2019 book — Talking To Strangers: What We Should Know About The People We Don’t Know — to put it in more elegant terms. The New Yorker writer of numerous bestsellers put words to what I learned years ago.
In its simplest terms, we think we can tell when people are lying to us. Turns out we can’t.
In my case, early in a career of talking to strangers, asking questions and listening (even to politicians) I believed I was a good judge of the answers.
A prominent Canadian federal politician and former premier of Quebec set my much younger, cockier self back on my heels. He will remain nameless, because he won’t likely remember the encounter. But I do, because when I asked him a question about his future, he looked straight into my eyes and lied. No other word fits what he told me. I believed his response.
Within months, he did exactly what I had suggested. Too bad I never thanked him for one of the most valuable lessons anyone can learn: Be wary of believing what you hear and what you think. Gladwell puts it much more succinctly. He calls it “defaulting to the truth. It is a fundamental human tendency,” he writes. We believe we can tell who is lying to us.
This explains the number of innocent people sent to prison, the miscarriages of justice that are so prevalent and why we keep believing those who can look us in the eye, those who exhibit none of the characteristics we believe liars possess — shiftiness, anxious behaviours, not making eye contact and a host of other “tells.”
It explains Bre-X, Bernie Madoff, and all the sly and slippery con men who defraud friends and relatives. It explains why the “grandparent” con has taken in so many Canadian seniors who, when they receive a frantic telephone call from their “grandson,” are willing to fork over thousands of dollars.
A few are saved by suspicious bank employees. Others aren’t so lucky and the money supposedly needed to save their relative is gone into the hands of hucksters.
We can’t get their money back but, as Gladwell writes: “Those victimized by default to the truth deserve our sympathy, not our censure.”
“We’re truth-biased,” he writes. “We give people the benefit of the doubt and assume that the people we are talking to are being honest.
“Default to truth is a crucially important strategy that occasionally and unavoidably leads us astray.”
The lesson for these parlous times? As Gladwell puts it: “The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.”
Catherine Ford is a regular Herald columnist.