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67 of 69 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars explains what holds society together (+ a terrific primer on game theory), February 2, 2012
This review is from: Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive (Hardcover)
How does society function when you know you can't possibly trust everyone in it? That's the question at the heart of Bruce Schneier's enlightening new book, "Liars and Outliers." There is no single or simple answer, Schneier explains. Instead, four "societal pressures" combine to help create and preserve trust within society. Those pressures include: (1) Moral pressures; (2) Reputational pressures; (3) Institutional pressures; and (4) Security systems. By "dialing in" these societal pressures in varying degrees, trust is generated over time within groups.

Of course, these societal pressures also fail on occasion, Schneier notes. He explores a host of scenarios -- in organizations, corporations, and governments -- when trust breaks down because defectors seek to evade the norms and rules the society lives by. These defectors are the "liars and outliers" in Schneier's narrative and his book is an attempt to explain the complex array of incentives and trade-offs that are at work and which lead some humans to "game" systems or evade the norms and rules others follow.

Indeed, Schneier's book serves as an excellent primer on game theory as he walks readers through complex scenarios such as prisoner's dilemma, the hawk-dove game, the free-rider problem, the bad apple effect, principle-agent problems, the game of chicken, race to the bottom, capture theory, and more. These problems are all quite familiar to economists, psychologists, and political scientists, who have spent their lives attempting to work through these scenarios. Schneier has provided a great service here by making game theory more accessible to the masses and given it practical application to a host of real-world issues.

The most essential lesson Schneier teaches us is that perfect security is an illusion. We can rely on those four societal pressures in varying mixes to mitigate problems like theft, terrorism, fraud, online harassment, and so on, but it would be foolish and dangerous to believe we can eradicate such problems completely. "There can be too much security," Schneier explains, because, at some point, constantly expanding security systems and policies will result in rapidly diminishing returns. Trying to eradicate every social pathology would bankrupt us and, worse yet, "too much security system pressure lands you in a police state," he correctly notes.

Despite these challenges, Schneier reminds us that there is cause for optimism. Humans adapt better to social change than they sometimes realize, usually by tweaking the four societal pressures Schneier identifies until a new balance emerges. While liars and outliers will always exist, society will march on.

You can read my longer review of Schneier's "Liars & Outliers" over at Forbes.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Feb 18, 2012 4:21:55 PM PST
Brian Blank says:
Can you identify what made the book four stars versus five stars? I (and most others, I presume) do not want to search in vain for a story that may exist.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 19, 2012 6:07:17 AM PST
Adam Thierer says:
It's a great book, but I like to reserve 5-star awards for truly spectacular, path-breaking books that will forever reshape the way we look at the topic addressed. Bruce's book doesn't really break a lot of new ground, but it does tie it all together in a better way than I have ever seen. That's why I awarded 4 stars. If Amazon had a more appropriate 10-star system, I'd have given it 9 out of 10. Again, it is terrific and I strongly recommend picking it up.
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