Sam Beer's Reviews > Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive

Liars and Outliers by Bruce Schneier
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's review
Nov 21, 2012

really liked it
Read in November, 2012

Liars and Outliers is most fundamentally a book about trust. It addresses why we want to trust people, how we benefit from trusting people, who we can trust, who we can't trust, and--at greatest length--how societies ensure that enough people can be trusted to make the benefits of trusting people outweigh the risks of trusting people.

After introducing the topic and defining terms, Schneier provides a theoretical account of the forces that prompt cooperative behavior. After introducing the topic and defining terms, Schneier establishes four levels of pressure--moral pressure, reputational pressure, institutional pressure, and security. He then discusses at length both how these levels of pressure bring about cooperation and how these levels of pressure fail to bring about cooperation in societies.

Among the more interesting discussions:

The different levels of pressure scale differently--reputational pressures, for instance, are effective in small societies, but are much less effective in very large societies.

Not all agents are individuals. Different forces are needed to cause a collective agent (like a corporation or an institution) to act cooperatively than to cause an individual agent to act cooperatively.

Perhaps most crucially, no society will ever have cooperation rates of 100%--and it's not clear that such a society would even be desirable. Defection--behavior that does not conform to the societal norms--is what essentially moves a society forward.

The book provides an overview of a broad field. That was nice for somebody like me, as I have no background in the field of security. The arguments were clear and well-illustrated. The book is a little bit redundant--the core points are reiterated quite extensively in the interest of clarity. It seems like this has bothered some reviewers more than it bothered me. The writing is interesting, the examples are clear, and the subject matter is made interesting for somebody who wasn't already interested in it.
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