Liars & Outliers: A book review by Bob Morris

Liars & OutliersLiars & Outliers: Enabling the Trust That Society Needs to Thrive
Bruce Schneier
John Wiley & Sons (2012)

How social coercion can help to enable compliance and trust within a group, whatever its size may be

As Bruce Schneier explains, “All complex ecosystems, whether they are biological ecosystems like the human body, natural ecosystems like a rain forest, social ecosystems like an open-air market, or socio-technical ecosystems like the global finance system, or the Internet, are deeply interlinked. Individual units within those ecosystems are interdependent, each doing its part and relying on the other units to do their parts as well. This is neither rare nor difficult, and complex systems abound.

“At the same time, all complex ecosystems contain parasites. Within every interdependent system, there are individuals who try to subvert the system to their own ends. These could be tapeworms in our digestive tracts, thieves in a bazaar, robbers disguised as plumbers, spammers on the Internet, or companies that move their profits offshore to evade taxes.

“Within complex systems, there is a fundamental tension between what I’m going to call cooperating, or acting in the group interest; and what I’m going to call defecting, or acting against the group interest and instead in one’s own self-interest.”

In these few words, Schneier has established the framework within which to present an abundance of information, insights, and counsel that prepare his reader and almost any organization (or almost any group within an organization) to help establish and then sustain a culture within which mutual trust is most likely to thrive. There is one essential question to be answered: How to empower the “cooperators” with whatever resources are needed so that they can minimize (if not eliminate) the damage done by “defectors”? In this context, “an ounce of prevention” really is worth “a pound of cure.”

Schneier uses the term “Cooperators” but, having read and then re-read his brilliant book, I presume to suggest that “Collaborators” would be more appropriate. Why? Establishing and then sustaining the aforementioned culture of mutual trust requires more, much more than buy-in or consent or agreement; it requires wide and deep collaboration between and among those who are not only involved but, more to the point, actively [begin italics] engaged [end italics] in the given enterprise, at all levels and in all areas.

Schneier suggests, “This book is about trust. Specifically, it’s about trust within a group. It’s important that defectors not take advantage of the group, but it’s also important for everyone in the group to trust that the defectors won’t take advantage”…until, of course, that trust is betrayed. “Specifically, it explains how society enforces, evokes, elicits, compels, encourages — I’ll use the word induces — trustworthiness, or at least compliance, through systems of what I call societal pressures, similar to sociology’s social controls: coercive mechanisms that induce people to cooperate, act in the group interest, and follow group norms.”

This book is also about security. In this context, “an ounce of prevention” really is worth “a pound of cure.” A culture within which trust thrives can only be reasonably secure if four societal pressures are effectively applied: moral, reputational, institutional, and systems. These are the subjects of greatest interest to me in Parts I and II:

o The core principles of “the science of trust”
o Key developments throughout the history of organizational security
o Key developments during the evolution of cooperation
o Key developments throughout the social history of trust
o The unique challenges posed by establishing and then maintaining various societal pressures
Note: These challenges are even greater for leaders of organizations with multiple domestic and/or foreign locations.
o The strengths, limitations, and vulnerabilities of security systems

In Part III, Schneier introduces and then explains a model whose design takes into full account how effective societal pressures can help an organization to achieve its strategic objectives. This model is based on ten core principles:

1. Understanding the social dilemma
2. Consideration of all four societal pressures
3. Paying attention to scale
4. Fostering empathy and community; increasing moral and reputational pressures
5. Using security systems to scale moral and reputational pressures
6. Harmonizing institutional pressures across related technologies
7. Ensuring that financial penalties account for the likelihood that a defection will be detected
8. Choosing general and reactive security systems
9. Reducing concentrations of power
10. Requiring transparency — especially in corporations and government institutions

In any organization, at least some defection is inevitable because no prevention system is infallible. Also, it would be a serious mistake to assume that defection is always bad and that societal pressures always serve admirable purposes. “Defection represents an engine for innovation, an immunological challenge to ensure the health of the majority against the risk of monoculture, a reservoir of diversity, and a catalyst for social change…The societies that societal pressures protect are not necessarily moral or desirable. In fact, they can protect some pretty awful ones.”

Obviously, it remains for each reader to determine which of the material provided is most relevant to the given organization’s needs, resources, and strategic objectives. Just about everything needed for the design process is provided in this book.

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