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

Liars and Outliers by Bruce Schneier
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Nov 22, 12

Read from November 06 to 22, 2012

Liars and Outliers isn't about how to 'fix' society. Nor is it about detecting when we're being conned, or, necessarily, how to protect oneself from confidence men or savvy scammers. Liars and Outliers is about something rather more fundamental: trust. In order for society to flourish - be it a small farming community or the vast, global society we're developing now - people have to be able to trust one another to do the 'right' thing, whatever that is, most of the time. We have to work together, or society collapses. However, while society as a whole needs people to cooperate, individuals can often do better - in the short run at least - by defecting, by putting their own self-interest ahead of that of the people around them. If individual defection is so worthwhile, and society is so dependent on people not defecting, how is it we managed to develop society at all?

Schneier starts his discussion of society with hawks and doves. Not the birds themselves, but a simplified model of them: doves are willing to share limited resources, whereas hawks will take what they need by force. Doves cooperate, hawks defect. By tuning the value of defection - and cooperation - as compared to the costs associated with either, we can vary the number of hawks and doves in the overall population - make cooperating more valuable, or defecting more dangerous, and you get fewer hawks. Make it easier to defect without facing real consequences and hawks abound. This is a simplistic model of behavior to be sure, but it reveals something important: there is no way to eliminate hawks entirely - the only way to keep hawks out is for there never to have been any. So, the question isn't "how do we put a stop to Undesirable Behavior X?" but "how do we keep the incidence of Undesirable Behavior X to some reasonable minimum?"

If we know everyone around us intimately - we're family in a tiny village - then figuring out who to trust is easy. We already know cousin Alice is good people, but uncle Bob shouldn't be left along with anything valuable. This doesn't scale though: the number of people a single human can know that well is too small to deal with even a largish small town, let alone a nation. So, society need other pressures it can put into play to twiddle the dials and make cooperation more easy, defection more difficult, and generally allow us to trust each other.

Schneier proposes four major categories of societal pressure, which differ primarily in the scale at which they can operation effectively. From smallest scale to largest, these are: moral pressures, reputational pressures, institutional pressures, and security systems. Moral pressures take of the form "if I cheat Alice, I'll feel bad", and can be all you need in a small community, but break down quickly with scale. I know Bob is a 'good' person, so I can trust him to do the 'right thing'. Reputation trades knowing someone for knowing of them - the trust is less direct, but if I trust Bob, and he trusts Alice, I can probably trust her, too. Beyond morals and reputation, society can set up institutions (like the police) whose purpose it is to enforce common values. We don't need to trust random strangers, we just need to trust the institutions are doing their job. Security systems can help to enhance the scale of all of these pressures, in addition to simply making defection harder - consider how a locked door makes stealing things harder.

Liars and Outliers is split into four major sections. The first lays out the science behind trust, and generally sets the stage for the following discussion. Part two focuses on each of the categories of pressure, showing how they operate and how they can, in some circumstances, be defeated. Part three highlights the complications introduced by examining societal dilemmas in the wider world, and pays particular attention to how conflicts between different sets of societal pressures can result in effectively forcing a defection. Finally, part four discusses ways pressures fail, how technology reinforces - and undermines - societal pressures, and how all of that plays into society's need to adapt to a rapidly changing future. The book also features a robust set of side notes, and what appears to be a comprehensive list of references.

It's worth noting that Liars and Outliers is not the culmination of years of detailed research presented as part of a comprehensive (and comprehensively documented) model for trust in human societies. Instead, it draws from disparate fields, roping in just enough detail to present its ideas and then handwaving away details or distinctions that aren't really necessary to that point. Liars and Outliers is, at its heart, a snapshot of, and beginning point for, a discussion of how society engenders the trust it needs to function, how that trust can be undermined, and what precautions we need to take to make sure we don't swamp the good we wish to do in unintended consequences. It's a starting point for thought, for discussion, and most excellent in that capacity. I highly recommend Liars and Outliers to anyone interested in the intersection of trust, security, and society as a whole.
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