Richard'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
Feb 15, 2016

it was amazing
bookshelves: cognition, nonfiction, social-political, read-these-reviews-first
Read from June 11 to August 19, 2013

The human world is strongly conditioned by beliefs, attitudes and cognitive biases that we received from our evolutionary heritage. This topic has been one of the focal points of my reading for several years now, and I can attest that Bruce Schneier’s Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive serves as an excellent overview.

The book’s dust jacket tells us that Schneier is a “security technologist”; his wikipedia page clarifies that he is a cryptographer and computer security consultant. It is important to note that this book has nothing to do with computers or cryptography — it is a somewhat academic treatment of how society relies on trust to facilitate implicit agreements that, effectively, constitute society itself.

One key point is that we evolved with a willingness to trust others under some circumstances, and not in others. The former was aimed more at the narrow world of our relatives, immediate circle of friends and tribe; the latter was aimed primarily at the strangers outside that world. But of course this is fluid; enmity within the tribe or even in a family could trigger a lack of trust, and it is even possible that a stranger could acquire a reputation that permitted trust in some contexts.

Another key is that trust shows up in identifiable patterns, which persist over time. Some of those patterns become formalized, such as the role of “boss”, or even institutionalized, such as the way courts work. Others remain informal, such as tipping, or even remain largely unspoken, such as what duties adult children owe to their parents. Clearly, we rely on each other to respect and follow these patterns — they are actually what constitutes the infrastructure of society at all levels, even within a family or between friends.

Do you see that there are several dimensions and many variables in this? One dimension is the scale of the society involved, which is itself of a fractal nature — the family is to the clan what the neighborhood is to the city, for example. Another dimension is time, since reputations can only be established over time. Among the variables are the types of pressures that guide us when we follow the rules. Do they come from inside us, internalized from childhood observations? Or are they external, such as laws or religious edicts? Or are they actually artificial, such as fences or protection by passwords?

The book’s only real weakness is an unfortunate side effect of its greatest strength. Schneier’s treatment is explicitly academic, and this could make things a bit of a chore for some — but while the author isn’t a storyteller like Malcolm Gladwell, the the text never becomes plodding or too pedantic. (Along the spectrum of academic writers, I’d put him below Dan Areily, at about the same level as Stephen Pinker, a bit above Daniel Kahneman, and far better than George Lakoff.)

But the academic approach emphasizes something that wouldn’t be immediately apparent otherwise, which is that the concepts here are applicable to an astonishingly wide range of situations. Someone already familiar with the basic applications of game theory will immediately recognized the language of “cooperate” or “defect”, for example, and won’t really see anything new in the early chapters.

Once an analytic model has been introduced and terms have been defined, however, they are invoked in the exploration of a very wide variety of instances. In fact, by the time the reader nears the end of the book, they’ll probably start noticing examples of their own in everyday life.
Let me provide an example that occurred to me while I was reading this book. I live in California, and my primary motorized transportation is a motorcycle. California is unlike every other state in the United States in that lane splitting is not illegal. So in other states, there is an institutional pressure (to use the jargon Schneier provides), in the form of law, to not slip between lanes of traffic and jump ahead.

In California there is, in parallel, a small amount of societal pressure in the form of disapproval of automobile drivers (who believe that the practice is dangerous, although it often is not), and even perhaps some moral pressure (arising from the sense that one is unfairly jumping ahead of one’s “rightful” position in a queue). There might even be some reputational pressure from friends that find it objectionable.

But at the same time, there is a mild social pressure in the opposite direction from fellow motorcyclists — if you don’t take advantage of the motorcycle’s strengths, then you’re a sucker for sticking only with its weaknesses. That might also create some reputational pressures in some circles.

This means there is a social dilemma, in which two competing sets of pressures are likely to influence an individual’s behavior. In the terminology of the text, if the motorcyclist stays in the automotive lane, they are cooperating with those who would prohibit lane splitting, otherwise they are defecting.

(Note that even in California, the police can always use “illegal lane change” or simply “reckless driving” to punish those that are acting too wantonly — if they can catch them, of course.)

But among motorcyclists, there are completely unwritten and largely unspoken sets of norms regarding the conditions under which one should or should not split those lanes. When I try to explain to my non-motorcyclist friends that lane splitting is quite legal, they invariably cite their horror at being passed even at full freeway speeds by motorcycles traveling well above the speed limit (typically, in my experience, testosterone-poisoned young men on sport bikes or self-styled “outlaws” on Harleys).

Well, yes. But those motorcycles are in turn defecting from the norms implicitly agreed to by the overwhelming majority of more sensible motorcyclists. So, for example, if one of my nephews were ever to take up riding, I would explain both the legal and extra-legal norms that I would hope they would follow. As an individual, I could only use societal and reputational pressure and try to invoke moral pressure.
I find something that Schneier notes interesting enough that I want to make it explicit: Laws receive no special treatment in this analytic model. They are merely one form of institutional pressure. Over-reliance on the explicit mechanism of the legal system is one of the problems we run into over and over — if the other pressures are absent, then the law will have very little force. Think, for example, of laws against speeding. Even worse is when countervailing pressures are ignored. Those villains of Wall Street typically have social, reputational and institutional pressures that overwhelm the weak regulations and laws we place in front of them.

Which is precisely the point: if we don’t examine and understand the holistic set of pressures people will be acting under, we won’t get the outcomes we desire. In earlier phases of human civilization, the internalized and intuitive pressures associated with morality and reputation played a dominant role. Today, we rely much more on institutional pressure — especially laws — and security systems. But those simply don’t work very well in comparison. The internalized rules are heuristics which we automatically apply to any situation, while rules and laws must be very explicit and specific.

Think about how much trouble we have with graffiti (ignore for a moment that some people don't think it's much of problem at all — our society certain treats it as one!). It isn’t particularly uncommon on a city bus to watch someone climb aboard (inevitably through the rear exit, and so without paying), pull out permanent markers, scrawl a tag and leave the bus. A hundred years ago, we were surrounded by people we knew, and such delinquency would have long-term reputational consequences — so it almost never happened. Society today is largely anonymous, so reputational pressures have collapsed.

Schneier does point out that anonymity has this effect, of course. But he isn’t a social philosopher, so doesn’t spend as much time on this as I would have liked. A pretty clear trend in our world is growing social isolation and consequent anonymity, despite the rise of social sites on the internet (or because of that shift). More careful study of the mechanisms outlined in this book are necessary, but is there some point on the horizon at which they will not be sufficient?

In this and other ways, I often wonder whether the human individual has been programmed (weakly, yet adequately) by evolution in ways that eventually contradict a sufficiently large and anonymous population.

The book is an excellent introduction to a very peculiar way of looking at society, albeit a way that brings into sharp focus the reasons behind many of our contemporary troubles. I highly recommend it.
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Reading Progress

06/11/2013 marked as: currently-reading
06/15/2013 page 75
21.0% "The seventh chapter starts with the notion that voting is a social dilemma, and that the purely rational approach is not to vote, but that society creates moral rules to encourage this pro-social behavior.

The endnote points out that the research shows this work — people vote because of social pressure. But at the same time they remain ignorant of the issues: there really is no social pressure to do otherwise."
06/27/2013 page 105
30.0% "Consider, esp. w/r/t "Falling Apart" —"
08/19/2013 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Riku (new) - added it

Riku Sayuj Thanks for pointing out this one. Seems intriguing.

message 2: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker Laws receive no special treatment in this analytic model. They are merely one form of institutional pressure. Over-reliance on the explicit mechanism of the legal system is one of the problems we run into over and over — if the other pressures are absent, then the law will have very little force.

Exactly. I wish more people were conscious of this.

I echo Riku. Thanks for highlighting this book to me.

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