Truth-Default Theory (TDT)

This post is based on content in Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know by Malcom Gladwell. It has been noted in previous posts that we all have an initial default to believe what we read or are told. If we questioned everything our process through life, particularly at the beginning, would be enormously slow. Truth-Default Theory, by psychologist Tim Levine, capitalizes on this tendency to explain why we are vulnerable to lies. According to Levine we are normally in the truth-default mode. To snap out of this mode requires a trigger. “A trigger is not the same as a suspicion, or the first sliver of doubt. We fall out of the truth-default mode only when the case against our initial assumption becomes definitive. We do not behave, in other words, like sober-minded scientists, slowly gathering evidence of the truth or falsity of something before reaching a conclusion. We do the opposite. We start by believing. And we stop believing only when our doubts and misgivings rise to the point where we can no longer explain them away.”

A Harvard Economist, Sendhil Mullainathan, three elite computer scientists and a bail expert conducted an interesting experiment in the courts of New York City. They gathered up the records of 554, 689 defendants brought before arraignment hearings in New York from 2008 to 2013. This involved 554,689 defendants. The same information the prosecutors had given judges in these arraignment case was fed into a computer and analyzed with a program developed by these three elite computer scientists. It is presumed that these judges know how to evaluate this information. The judges decided to release just over 400,000 of the 554,689 defendants. The computer program made its own decisions regarding whom to release. So who made the best decisions? Whose list committed the fewest crimes while out on bail and was most likely to show up for their trial date? The people on the computer’s list were 25% less likely to commit crimes than the 400,000 people released by the judges of New York City. So in this contest of man versus machine, man clearly lost.

The main shortcoming of these judges was that they were human beings. Humans do not do that good a job of integrating numerical information without the aid of machines. And humans are strongly influenced by the behavior and status of the subjects they are evaluating. Gladwell reviews the case of Amanda Cox.

Amanda Cox was an American living in Italy who was falsely accused of murdering Meredith Kercher. In hindsight, it is completely inexplicable how she was convicted. There was never any physical evidence linking either Cox or her boyfriend to the crime. Nor was there ever a plausible explanation for why Cox—an immature, sheltered, middle-class girl from Seattle—would be interested in engaging in a murderous sex game with a troubled drifter she barely knew. Gladwell’s explanation is that Amanda’s behavior and the things she said convinced some people of her guilt, in spite of the hard evidence that she was innocent. So appearances, can get you in trouble, but they also provide the basis for successful lying.

The opposite case is Bernie Madoff. Bernie Madoff was the hedge-fund manager who ran a pyramid scheme that ended up defrauding many wealthy and prestigious clients. In addition to his status as the leader of a large fund, he was a genius at convincing people that all was above board. Gladwell analyzes many other interesting cases.

So what is to be learned from this book? A default mode of belief is practical, but be aware that appearances can be deceiving. So be careful about new interactions. Also be careful regarding established relationships if something questionable develops.

There are good tips on how to deceive. Simply act like you are telling the truth and stick with it.

Although Gladwell does not mention this in his book, we have an example of an extraordinary liar. He is the President of the United States, Donald Trump. And his many, many lies have been documented. He lies just as often as he tells the truth. And when caught in a lie, he doubles down. He never admits that he was wrong. This provides quite a challenge to government officials who he tries to force to back up his lies. Of course, he has no credibility with foreign leaders. How American citizens can still support him is mind boggling. And he is planning to run for re-election!

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