In his most recent book, Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell challenges his readers to think about whether they can really judge another’s character. We find comfort in our ability to spot a liar in the act, whether through natural intuition or training. But as Gladwell explains, our collective “default to truth” makes us terrible at determining fact from fiction.

In our Investigations practice, we’re looking into someone’s character – but as we discuss below, our methods reflect how due diligence can be the tonic for overzealous trustworthiness and yield better results than any first or second impression.

Why We ‘Default to Truth’ Before Conducting Due Diligence

Gladwell argues that the main reason why people are such poor judges of character is that people “default to truth” and they “rely on a set of strategies to translate one another’s words and intentions … based on the flimsiest of clues.”

We interpret a person’s outward behavior and demeanor as being linked with what they are thinking inside, which is not always the case. In other words, if a person is lying to you but gives off traditional clues that they are being honest, like maintaining eye contact, you are likely to believe them, even if evidence points to the contrary. On the flip side, if a person is telling you the truth but is just nervous or shy and fails to make eye contact, you are more likely to think they are lying.

Gladwell claims that people “default to truth” for good reason: society could not operate if people approached all situations thinking that every stranger has bad intentions. And most people are honest in most situations. People inherently know this, so instead of thinking every stranger is out to get you, people suppress thoughts about worst-case scenarios and continue interacting with strangers in all types of settings.

If we did not default to the truth in our everyday lives, it would be scary and stressful to leave our homes and engage with the outside world in even the most basic of ways, not to mention activities like using dating apps or buying items from strangers on the internet.

How We Can Mitigate Our Bad Judgement

Fortunately, we do not need to function at either end of these extremes: being completely paranoid or extremely gullible. Instead, Gladwell recommends that people approach the world — and strangers — with “caution and humility” and use context when trying to understand a person and their perspective.

That’s where due diligence comes in. We often see clients defaulting to the truth during our day-to-day work. For instance, many clients come to us seeking a bare minimum level of effort when conducting a due diligence investigation into potential business partners or executives. Clients often tell us that they met a potential partner and “he seems like a good person” or “she seems trustworthy,” only for us to determine the individual lied about their credentials or that their polished outward appearance covered up a more troubling background. Interestingly, when we present clients with this information, they often still want to default to truth and believe what the person said.

It is not that clients want to take risks — they simply default to the truth because they believe they are a good judge of character and because the person with whom they spoke did not give off any traditional signs of deception. That is why we approach our work without any preconceived notions or biases about the subject; we have investigated too many people to jump to conclusions and default to truth.

On the other hand, we don’t enter an investigation thinking every subject is sinister and hiding something. Per Gladwell’s advice, we remain cautious and practice humility. We do not jump to conclusions or editorialize. We represent the facts that we find and discuss any potential issues with the client.

We’ve learned how to talk to strangers.