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The No. The routine traffic stop that ends in tragedy.

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S ome years and several books ago, the New Yorker journalist Malcolm Gladwell moved from being a talented writer to a cultural phenomenon.

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He has practically invented a genre of nonfiction writing: the finely turned counterintuitive narrative underpinned by social science studies. Or if not the inventor then someone so closely associated with the form that it could fall under the title of Gladwellian.

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But in doing so he crafts a compelling story, stopping off at prewar appeasement, paedophilia, espionage, the TV show Friendsthe Amanda Knox and Bernie Madoff cases, suicide and Sylvia Plath, torture and Khalid Sheikh Mohammedbefore coming to a somewhat pat conclusion. Talk to stramgers tale begins with Sandra Bland, the African American woman who talk to stramgers July was stopped by a traffic cop in a small Texas town.

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Doing what almost all of us would have done, she moved aside to let the car pass. It was on that technicality that the cop, Brian Encinia, ordered her to pull over.

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Encinia demanded that she put it out. Three days later, while still being talk to stramgers, she killed herself. As Gladwell notes, it was one of several high-profile incidents in which the aggressive behaviour of police officers led to shocking deaths of African Americans, thus inspiring the Black Lives Matter movement.

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But why, Gladwell asks, did things go so badly wrong on that Texas highway? What were the misunderstandings that led to such a needless conclusion, and where did they come from?

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There is a short answer to that question, and it goes something like this: in a misapplication of a criminology study, American police forces were trained to use minor traffic violations to uncover major crimes. In doing so they pathologised a whole range of normal behaviour and almost certainly exacerbated pre-existing racial bias.

So he takes us on a digressive journey in which we are encouraged to examine our own behaviour and thought processes.

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What would you do, for example, if you witnessed what you thought was inappropriate interaction in a shower between a school sports coach and one of his pupils? Then what does that person in authority do? Were you certain that you saw what you thought you saw?

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Is the person in authority certain of your certainty? And what about his or her superior? In reality most of us have a predisposition to doubt out-of-the-ordinary occurrences. Nassar turned out to be a profile abuser.

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But he was inadvertently protected by parents because, by and large, we assume people — especially those in positions of power — are acting in accordance with our expectations. And when some people did sound alarm bells, the authorities chose to dismiss their concerns because they seemed too incredible.

It turns out that a large majority of us are pretty bad at spotting liars. Even supposed specialists in the field are not very good at it.

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A study of New York criminal judges found that they scored about as well as random selection when deciding who should and should not be granted bail. But what does all this have to do with Bland? Well, when we try to systemise doubt, argues Gladwell, we empower our worst instincts.

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If it was suspicion that formed the basis of all interaction between strangers, we would never have learned to cooperate on such a vast and complex scale. In other words, the price of liberty for innocents such as Bland might be allowing the occasional prolific paedophile and con artist to escape early detection.

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But his book is seldom less than a fascinating study of gullibility and the social necessity of trusting strangers. The Observer Society books. Andrew Anthony.

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