Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive

Full disclosure: I’m a pretty big Bruce Schneier fan and I did get this book at a discount for promising to review it.  This is me fulfilling my end of the promise.

Schneier is a security guy.  Not this kind, more about security in technology.  He’ll be the first to point out your security flaws, tell you how terrible your password is, and publicize a companies mishandling of said password.  This book is different.  It’s a lot less about technology and security and more about the psychology of trust in humans. (Don’t worry, there’s still some TSA bashing on pg. 197)

Why do we trust others?  Why do others trust us?  It obviously gives us some sort of genetic advantage to trust, but what exact is the advantage?  Why don’t a few bad apples screw up the game for everyone?  Schneier looks into these questions and more.

Bachelor Pad and other shows have recently highlighted things like the Prisoner’s Dilemma.  The original concept is for two cons who have been detained by police.  They can either rat out the other or keep quiet.  If they both keep quiet, they’ll each serve 1 year in jail.  If one turns on the other, he will serve no time in jail, but his partner will serve 10 years.  If they both rat the other out, they’ll each serve 5 years.  The logical choice to minimize time served is to keep quiet, but it doesn’t always work that way.  Replace prison time with winning Bachelor Pad outright to see the parallel (pretty much the same in my mind).

If you’ve ever played SimCity, you know that your virtual “society” has to make trade-offs   You can’t have a productive society without a small amount of pollution.  You can’t build an efficient power plant without a risk of it suddenly exploding.  You can’t cut back on my funding.  Also, you can’t have a crime free city.  Period.  So then, what is the optimal crime rate?  When does money spent on policing or giving up liberties stop becoming a good deal for the increased security?

The book is divided into different group sizes based on Dunbar’s Number(s).  You have a much different level of trust and interaction with your spouse, compared to your family, compared to your friends, compared to your country.  Different levels require different pressures and sometimes different security to ensure society can function.

Unfortunately, society holds the “position of interior” which means it must protect itself for all possible attacks from defectors.  Defectors must simply find a single, tiny crack in the defenses in order to cause damage to society. (OMG ZERG RUSH)

One way society can win is to make it easy to play by the rules.  Look at iTunes and Amazon for purchasing music.  The internet brought a tidal wave of piracy for music because it was so easy and CDs were so expensive.  Now, these services allow me to purchase legitimate music with (literally) the click of a button.  Amazon music now has a special monthly budget, so I don’t get carried away…but it’s so easy!

Sometimes, what society deems “right” in hindsight is actually “wrong”.  Inequality for civil rights was once considered the “right” thing to do.  I don’t think many people would agree with that.  I hope we soon realize we are doing the same thing to gay couples.  Society isn’t always right, but it should strive to be more right.  I’ll paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. paraphrasing someone else: “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Random thought I had (pg. 19): Evolution is like machine learning algorithm operating on a function with a lot of local minimums.  Surviving classes of species (birds, mammals, fish, narwhals, etc.) are those local minimums all trying to reach a global minimum of survivability.  To someone interested in machine learning, everything is a machine learning problem. 🙂

Overall, great book for understanding trust and security in society at all scales.

Categories: Liars and Outliers, Text

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.