Holy Fool: Who He Is + the Dangers of Knowing the Truth

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Talking to Strangers" by Malcolm Gladwell. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Being able to detect lies seems like an unequivocal good. The Russian archetype of the Holy Fool demonstrates the benefits of being able to see the truth of a situation. Who is the Holy Fool?

The Holy Fool is typically an eccentric character, sometimes even a crazy one, who has access to truths that other characters don’t have access to. The Holy Fool can be seen particularly in Russian stories and those by Hans Christian Anderson, such as “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In modern times, the “Holy Fool” in society is often a whistleblower.

We’ll cover the attributes of the Holy Fool and why the role of the Holy Fool isn’t always the best position to have.

Who Is the Holy Fool?

An example of the Holy Fool is in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Hans Christian Anderson. The king believes that he has a magic outfit that can only be seen by intelligent people. When he walks down the street, no one is willing to admit that the king is naked, for fear that they’ll be called stupid. Only a small child yells out over the crowd, “The king isn’t wearing anything!” The child is a Holy Fool.

In real life, the Holy Fool is a whistleblower. What sets whistleblowers apart from the rest of society is that they have a better sense of deception and are less likely to default to truth and to believe that liars are rare. Instead, the Holy Fool sees con men around every corner. 

So why don’t more people think like the Holy Fool? Isn’t it beneficial to be able to spot a lie?

The Benefit of Truth-Default 

If you think about it, Truth-Default Theory is the reason that criminals so often go undetected. So wouldn’t it be beneficial for humans to have evolved with better lie detection skills? In other words, to be Holy Fools? Why is it still a natural human behavior to default to truth? Defaulting to truth aids in our survival.

After the Trivia Experiment, Levine was concerned with the following questions: 

  • How is it that, over the course of human evolution, humans haven’t gotten better at detecting a lie? 
  • Wouldn’t it be useful for human survival to be able to identify when you’re being deceived? 

Ultimately, Levine concluded that human beings do not need to identify lies (from a survival standpoint) as much as we need to be able to have efficient communication and trusting social encounters. It’s not as beneficial to be a Holy Fool as to be connected to others.

He argues that truth-default is highly advantageous to survival because it allows for effective communication and social coordination. From an evolutionary standpoint, being vulnerable to deception does not threaten human survival, but not being able to communicate does threaten human survival. To better understand this point, we have to look at what happens when we don’t default to truth (when we are Holy Fools).

Harry Markopolos: The Holy Fool

In the 1900’s and early 2000’s, Bernie Madoff was a well-known name within the financial industry. He was successful, wealthy, imperious, and reclusive—the kind of mysterious figure that draws attention.

Five years later, Madoff turned himself over to the authorities. He was exposed as the perpetrator of the biggest Ponzi scheme in history. Over the course of those five years, several journalists, investigators, and bankers had suspicions about the validity of Madoff’s business, but no one came to the conclusion that he was a criminal. Everyone in the financial industry defaulted to truth and assumed that he couldn’t be a fraud—everyone except Harry Markopolos.

Harry Markopolos

Harry Markopolos is a financial expert who’s deeply skeptical of large organizations, and of people in general. He has a very low threshold for doubt. Consequently, his trigger point is extremely sensitive. He’s a frequent Holy Fool.

Markopolos first heard of Bernie Madoff in the late 1980’s. He worked at a hedge fund and was trying to copy Madoff’s trading strategy. But he couldn’t figure out how Madoff was coming up with his figures. So he called some contacts he knew in the financial industry. No one knew where or how Madoff was doing his business. Markopolos was immediately triggered. He knew that Madoff’s business was illegitimate. 

Markopolos went through the exact same process that Nat Simon and Renaissance Technologies would go through a few years later. But instead of defaulting to truth, Markopolos immediately saw through Madoff’s dishonesty and the incompetent regulation of the financial market. 

Markopolos went to the SEC with what he believed to be a fool-proof argument against Madoff in 2000, 2001, 2005, 2007, and 2008. If they had acted on his tips and conducted a thorough enough investigation to reach the trigger point, Madoff could have been stopped with only $7 billion, as opposed to the $50 billion he had stolen by 2009. 

Technically speaking, the truth-default theory is to blame for allowing Madoff to get away with fraud for all those years. So is it dangerous that people naturally default to truth? Remember, the trade-off for enhanced lie detection skills is often effective communication and social skills. Here’s how this materialized in this case:

In 2002, upon realizing the magnitude of Bernie Madoff’s empire, Markopolos began to fear for his life. Very powerful people had personal interests in keeping Madoff in business, and Markopolos had been publicly criticizing Madoff’s business for years. He felt he couldn’t be safe until the Ponzi scheme was revealed. So he made a plan to approach Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. 

Markopolos was so paranoid that he made an elaborate plan to hide his identity at one of Spitzer’s events. He put his documented evidence against Madoff in a series of large envelopes and handed them to another woman in the hopes of getting them to Spitzer. But the plan failed—the documents never reached the attorney general and another seven years passed before Madoff was exposed. 

Markopolos’s natural skepticism was the reason he was able to catch Madoff in the crime, but it was also the reason he was unable to effectively communicate his evidence in a way that made a difference in the case. That’s the consequence of not having a default to truth. Without a natural sense of trust, you cannot have effective social encounters. This is the downfall of the Holy Fool.

Holy Fool: Who He Is + the Dangers of Knowing the Truth

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Malcolm Gladwell's "Talking to Strangers" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Talking to Strangers summary :

  • Why we don't understand strangers
  • How to talk to strangers in a cautious way so you don't get fooled
  • How Hitler deceived so many world leaders

Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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