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Who We Listen To, Who We Don’t, And Why

By Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks
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Messengers by Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks

Messengers (2019) is a fascinating exploration of why we listen to, follow, or believe in some people but not others. It explains why thoughtful experts are sometimes ignored in favor of confident blowhards. And it reveals why apparently irrelevant details, like the color of someone’s lipstick or the roundness of their face, can make a huge difference to how we respond to them. 

Key idea 1 of 10

Humans make snap judgments about messengers themselves, not just about their message.

Why would a federal investigation into the 2007-08 financial crisis want to hear, not from the investor who had consistently warned of the crash before it happened, but instead from a journalist who just wrote up the story afterward? 

And why when the British government prepared public information campaigns for the event of a nuclear attack in the 1980s, did it select as its spokespeople the country’s then top footballer, Kevin Keegan, and leading cricketer, Ian Botham?

The answer is simple. We don’t just judge communication on its merits but on the basis of the messenger delivering it. 

Michael Burry was one of a very few Wall Street investors who saw the financial crisis coming. He realized that the US subprime mortgage market was hugely risky. His major bets against it earned him, and a few investors who would listen to him, many millions of dollars when the crash finally came. But few listened. Even after the crash, rather than talking to Burry himself, investigators chose to talk to the journalist who wrote about him, Michael Lewis – the author of best-sellers like Moneyball and The Big Short

Though Burry was a brilliant investor, he was an awkward communicator. He has a glass eye, the result of a childhood tumor, and that sometimes made one-on-one conversations unsettling. He didn’t fit people’s instinctive image of a Wall Street banker, wearing shorts and t-shirts to work rather than a suit, starched shirt, and tie. He wasn’t well known, so had no real status. Michael Lewis, by contrast, was a popular and successful journalist. As a messenger, he ticked a lot of boxes. 

The important qualities of a messenger are who they are, what they look and sound like, and the nature of their social, professional, or economic statuses. That’s because we are constantly making judgments about the people we see and hear based on the briefest of views and the slightest information. 

These snap judgments are surprisingly accurate. One study found that participants could correctly identify whether a teacher was dominant, confident, competent, or warm based on watching only a ten-second, silent video clip of the classroom. The participants’ judgments were closely correlated with assessments from students who’d been in class all term. 

As this study highlights, we constantly make snap judgments about people, identifying them as warm, competent, or successful based on mere moments. And when we rate someone positively in one area – like Ian Botham’s clear competence and status as Britain’s leading cricketer – we are more likely to listen to them, even about completely unrelated issues, such as an impending nuclear war. 

Let’s dive in and start to understand why the messenger is just as important as the message. 

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