Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Talking to Strangers, attempts to answer the question why we are so bad at judging strangers.
We were taught not to judge books by their covers, yet, we do it all the time, and if you’re honest with yourself, you probably think you’re a pretty good judge of character. We must make any number of judgments every day and if we were to second guess every single one of them, we would impair our ability to function effectively. In the legal world, these kinds of judgments could affect your liability, your damage award, your liberty.
Why do we think we’re such good judges? First, Gladwell postulates that when we interact with people, we just expect them to be truthful (“default to truth”). Unless the evidence becomes quantitatively (not just qualitatively) damning, we will find ways to rationalize inconvenient facts away. Second, we have a tendency to believe that people’s outer states accurately convey their inner states (“transparency”): if someone is angry, his face will convey anger; if someone is lying, he’ll avoid eye contact.
In one example, Gladwell writes about judges making bail decisions, which badly underperformed computers. While the judges had before them the defendant’s record, the lawyers’ submissions, and the defendant himself, the computer had only the defendant’s record. Despite having only a fraction of the information, the computer made better bail decisions: the people the computer would have released were 25% less likely to commit a crime while awaiting trial than the 400,000 people released by the judges of New York City. Rather than improving their judgments, it turns out that having all that extra information impaired them.
What are the implications for your legal matter? While many matters are resolved on the documents, sometimes credibility becomes a significant factor. Judges are human too. They view a witness’s demeanour and assess her as she gives her testimony. The implications of Gladwell’s findings are that, for better or worse, how your lawyer performs and how you portray yourself on the stand will continue to make an impact on your case. Don’t be unprepared!