Malcolm Gladwell reckons we have a hard time recognizing the truth – about Amanda Knox

Many of Malcolm Gladwell’s techniques are highly applicable to true crime. Thin-slicing is one. An example of just how brilliantly effective thin-slicing can be is in the hugely complex quagmire of serious relationships and marriage. How the heck does one thin-slice that? And yet, we can.

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When couples show one particular trait the relationship is predictably doomed. That trait is Contempt.

This is a fascinating insight into perhaps the most complex of all human and social dynamics – romantic relationships. How often have we all been stung, misled, betrayed and lied to? How often have others felt that way way – and often misunderstood – those traits in us? When couples first engage, whether on Tinder or at the altar, what everyone wants to know including them is: is this fucker going to last?

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Contempt provides the litmus test. If there’s any contempt in the beginning, a relationship is not likely to see a very good, very happy or very long run. Contempt cuts through the crap of what the Terminator once referred to as “the dynamics of human pair bonding”.

Is a marriage going to end in divorce? If there’s contempt in the beginning, middle or end, it surely will.

Now, we can apply the same Gladwellian techniques almost across the board with true crime. These are just a few examples of thin-slicing tricks that work more often than not in true crime:

  1. The absence of evidence is also evidence. I’ve heard prosecutors in court phrasing it slightly differently – the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. What this means is where there is no evidence, where we would expect to see it [regardless of whether there is a crime or not] this in itself is evidence of something. A good example is deleted cell phone data, or a crime scene that has recently been vacuumed, or laundry done in the middle of a murder etc.
  2. Not all liars are murderers, but all murderers are liars. Just as contempt is a quick route to check whether a relationship will stand the test of time or not, if a suspect – or potential suspect – proves to be even a little economical with the truth especially during an interrogation, this tends to be a red flag. There are exceptions, Nichol Kessinger being a current example. But in true crime it’s usually not hard to find out whether someone is telling the truth or not. Invariably it’s not a little white lie here or there, it’s a case of living a lie.
  3. Social death of the perpetrator as a precursor to murder. This is more difficult to recognize, and thus tougher to thin-slice, because it’s symbolic, and this is really the area we miss when trying to figure out other people. What matters to us matters to others in different proportions. pinocchio-ears
  4. The Temptation of PleasureLand. Whether it’s Oscar Pistorius or Amanda Knox, OJ or Chris Watts, what crimes invariably involve is a PleasureLand calling from a distance. The crime is intended to make sure access is not denied to an imagined PleasureLand. PleasureLand both tempts the perpetrator, and numbs their sense of reality.

Once one gets the hang of Gladwellian thin-slicing, it feels like everything can be thin-sliced.

There’s a lot of thin-slicing going on in true crime, especially in the media coverage. It’s inevitable that talk show hosts will try to reduce high-profile crimes that have been bumper-to-bumper for weeks, months, sometimes years, to a golden nugget. Do they get it right?

True crime is a complex psychology, and tends to have very complex gears and machinery driving antisocial behavior. The identifies of people are complex, the dynamics between them even more so. And since so much of this machinery is deliberately hidden, while some of it is freely disclosed, this challenges and tests our ability to discern truth from reality. Most of us can’t, and no one can without doing their due diligence, spending time getting to know the people involved.

Just as identity isn’t the same as character, truth isn’t the same as reality.  While identity is constant, character can be refashioned, rebooted, reimagined. Truth isn’t interchangeable with this or that reality. Reality is whatever we believe, or say it is. Truth, the TRUE in True Crime Rocket Science isn’t a matter of beliefs, it’s scientific.

In true crime, typically when an expert says it that’s the new reality. When an influential person prognosticates that becomes true crime gospel. But that’s not truth. That’s thin-sliced reality. Thin-sliced truth is harder and far more difficult to do properly, especially in true crime. It takes a mind practiced in criminal psychology, and saturated with knowledge of the case, to come close to getting it right.

We see it when Dr. Phil thin-slices Chris Watts’ Sermon on the Porch, and assesses him as guilty because he’s a narcissist. And then the true crime forums are flooded with people repeating that word.

Dr. Phil Covers Chris Watts – and uses the “N” Word

When an ex-FBI profiler on Dr. Phil calls Watts a psychopath, the true crime world shudders with new revelation. That’s why this crime was committed!

When an ex-FBI profiler, the legendary John Douglas [AKA Mindhunter] says he thinks Amanda Knox is innocent, that’s enough – apparently – for Gladwell.

Wrongfully Accused

Douglas was paid handsomely for his expert opinion in the West Memphis 3 case,  basically applying the same thin-slicing to Damien Echols as Amanda Knox. It goes like this: “Just because you behave in a weird way after a vicious murder [in Echols’ case the triple murder of three eight-year-old boys], doesn’t mean you were involved in a crime.”

Douglas was also called by John Ramsey’s defense lawyers within two weeks of JonBenet’s murder. Douglas famously bragged that after two hours of talking to John Ramsey [who appeared “appropriately sad and depressed”], Douglas told Ramsey’s lawyer Bryan Morgan – of Haddon, Morgan and Foreman –  “I believe him.”

A Grand Jury two years later did not, and the results of that hearing were kept secret for the next 13 years.  And then? The public thin-sliced the then District Attorney’s statement that “there’s not enough evidence to have a trial” to mean that’s what the Grand Jury thought. It wasn’t.

Thin-slicing can be used just as easily to manipulate. In Amanda Knox’s case, if you were trying to influence public opinion [after her original conviction], where would be the obvious place to start? Start by undermining the Italian justice system. That’s what they did and it worked.

But let’s look a little closer at the way Gladwell thin-slices the Knox saga, and why Knox got her way in the end.

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From the New York Times:

In “Talking to Strangers” he asks why we are “so bad” at understanding people we haven’t met before. We often can’t tell when a stranger is lying to us (“Puzzle Number One”), and meeting a stranger face-to-face doesn’t necessarily help our understanding of who they are (“Puzzle Number Two”). 

Amanda Knox has always been an enigma. One might say the same of Damien Echols, Oscar Pistorius, Casey Anthony and Chris Watts. These men and women aren’t the average. Look closer, and at the time they were accused of murder, they were both on the fringes of society and trying to break into PleasureLand.

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In true crime, thin-slicing can be a double-edged sword. Just as weird behavior can be used to say someone isn’t necessarily guilty of something, weird behavior can be used to say someone is. When Douglas met John Ramsey and Ramsey appeared appropriately sad, there was nothing weird about that. When Knox was photographed outside the villa where Meredith lay dead, having been brutally attacked and bled to death [she drowned in her own blood], Knox was kissing her boyfriend. This strange behavior persisted at the police station, where everyone else was grief-stricken and shocked, while Knox continued to flirt and giggle with her Italian lover. And Knox seemed to play the goofy excuse in court, as a ploy to explain her strange behavior at the scene.

When Knox appeared in Italy most recently, she’d learned to portray a different look:

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Obviously, Gladwell and Douglas are too busy giving lecture tours on expert lie-spotting to spend any time on one particular case, or they would see the not so subtle way they, and many are being manipulated.

Knox was recently caught out trying to solicit funds for a wedding that had already taken place.

Whether we want to call that a lie or just sneakiness, it’s one of many instances, going all the way back to Knox framing her boss Patrick Lumumba when the walls moved it. It seemed like she knew a little too much then when she fingered a black man, her boss, when the suspect turned out to be a black dude who’d hung out with Knox and her pals at home.

The  critical aspect Gladwell, Douglas and the Thin-Slicing crow have missed, is the most obvious. If someone is weird, just in their daily behavior. If they’re loud and attention-seeking, this and that, what are they like to live with? And how does that translate to Knox’s roommate getting murdered over a long holiday weekend when everyone in the villa had decamped to their families, except the expat American student and her expat British neighbor, right next door [who was trying to study].

The New York Times does it’s often version of thin-slicing. Firstly it thin-slices Gladwell’s book, then thin-slices his book’s version of the Knox case. It all comes down to 1) the overwhelming evidence that someone else was guilty and 2) Knox didn’t grieve when her friend died.

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Overwhelming evidence pointing to another culprit.

If we apply the logic of the Knox case to the West Memphis 3 case [officially unsolved], then we could also say only one of the West Memphis 3 committed the murders, why should all three take the fall? It’s nonsense. In the Knox case there were originally three convictions: Ivorian Rudy Guede, who had smoked and sold marijuana on previous occasions with the girls in the house. Knox’s boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito who it was said had been caught viewing bestiality porn and used cocaine, and Amanda Knox.

The Pro-Knox site has been explicit in trying to debunk the drug narrative as a myth.

The Cocaine Dealer Relationship Myth

Of course just as behaving in a weird way may be a sign that you’re just a weirdo, it may also be a sign of habitual drug use, with all the associated Pinocchio behavior and stringing others along, thrown in. Once again, if you’re two students sharing space in a far flung villa in Italy, and you’re not both equally caught up in Pinocchio goes to PleasureLand, why wouldn’t conflict ensure?

Knox was guilty because she didn’t act like the prototypically grieving friend

It wasn’t just that Knox didn’t act right at the crime scene, or at the police station. It wasn’t that someone else had to smash down Meredith’s bedroom door, even though Knox was at home. It wasn’t the half a dozen confessions Knox gave, each one contradicting the other. It wasn’t her boyfriend withdrawing his alibi.

It was after Meredith was dead, she expected life to continue as usual. She expected to stay in her room, and continue to go to classes. All of Meredith’s British friends left Perugia immediately after the murder. They suspended their studies and went home. They attended Meredith’s funeral. They gave their statements and almost all had alibis.

Knox wanted to stay in Italy. She told her parents as much. She told them she didn’t want to go home. Her friend had just been murdered in the room next door, and the murderer [at that stage] was still out there, and she wanted to continue with her life? That only makes sense if you thin-slice it one way.

Thin-slicing has its limits, but apparently, so do ex-FBI profiling legends.

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Who do you despise the most in True Crime? Damien Echols is my pick [WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES]

 

5 thoughts on “Malcolm Gladwell reckons we have a hard time recognizing the truth – about Amanda Knox

  1. I am glad you addressed this. I have been wondering for quite awhile whether innocent parties can appear extremely guilty yet be innocent. I mean apart from the evidence, which can be circumstantial. This brought to mind a post of yours I read recently that I must go back and search for so I can read it again. It might have been in one of the Two Face books, I don’t remember. I’m probably misremembering the word but it was something like “Interconnectivity” or something similar, a word implying that there are similarities in criminals that you have noticed. After Reading this article, I want to re-visit that one because I feel I’m seeing some similarities between Knox, and some of the other accused parties you wrote about that I have seen in recent cases. Great article. Very enlightening as well as disturbing about these so-called “experts”. And very disheartening if they can be swayed to believe someone just because that party can be a benefit to them personally.

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  2. I get disappointed when people who should know better like Candace DeLong don’t at least acknowledge that they’re “thin-slicing”. It spreads the fallacy, and weirdly this is something i agree with Chris on, but people are more complex than the worst thing he ever did (and did and did.) Point is, you can’t diagnose someone as a psychopath or a narcissist because of one crime, even if it’s “the worst” crime.

    I read Douglas ‘s book “ The Cases that Haunt us,” one of which is Jonbenet. I always felt similar about the crime as I did about the McCanns, that they didn’t murder their daughter but both were covering up an accident or negligence. I still think that in the McCanns but Douglas explains in great detail why he doesn’t think the Ramseys did it. This is years after he was hired by their lawyers and I can say he definitely isn’t merely a hired gun/paid witness that is lying on purpose. He truly thinks they didn’t do it and he brought up some really good points. He points out that since there’s no blood, she was probably strangled first, so it wasn’t an accident. How it was a sexual crime, how the motives people come up with are not how people work (like that Patsy was mad at her for peeing the bed so she garroted her daughter?), why he thinks the ransom note was written first and not after, and why they wouldn’t leave the body there and would have found it earlier if they had. It definitely made me re-think assumptions I had made. I think he’s off about Todd Kohlepp though.

    I gotta say, I don’t understand why people still think Amanda Knox is guilty. I never assumed she was, I wasn’t sure, but now that we know all we know, I don’t know why people dig their heels in more that aren’t directly involved in the case. It annoys me too when people blame “the Italian justice system” (especially when they exonerated her) or “the Portuguese police,” especially when many of them are Americans who have never left the country, as if we’re better-we are brimming with killers, mass murderers, and the wrongfully convicted- plus our justice system still kills people and is currently boasting how they’re going to do that more. However this Italian prosecutor is problematic-he LOVES a Satanic cult. I personally don’t think Amanda is even that weird-she’s done a couple things that are maybe tacky or tone deaf (the kiss, wedding) but the expectations are too much. People examine every facial expression of people in court, expecting them to weep the whole time, when it’s been years, and in her case, she knew no one there well. Why should she be compared to Meredith’s friends from England who went home? Weren’t they friends from before and they came to Perugia together? She really hadn’t known her very long, and my impression is that they were just roommates/acquaintances, in fact they thought Amanda was messy which means probably annoying. The whole theory of the crime is trying to make an unfortunately common and simple crime into something complicated, ritualistic, and “sexy.” If Amanda looked different, I guarantee it wouldn’t have been what it became, which sounds like a snuff film in some man’s fantasies and not how people are.

    What other cases are there where multiple males and a female torture, rape, and murder? I can think of killer duos that do that, or teenage thrill killings, and a gang case, but none like this scenario.

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    • I gotta say, I don’t understand why people still think Amanda Knox is guilty. I never assumed she was>>>>Have you read any books on the Knox case?

      Douglas explains in great detail why he doesn’t think the Ramseys did it.>>>Who does Douglas think did do it, or is it a case that the Ramseys didn’t do it, and he doesn’t who did? Have you read any books on the JonBenet Ramsey case?

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