BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

How do you know who to trust?

While I don't make a habit of this, from time to time I'll see a book discussed on the web, or referenced in another book, and hit the publisher up for a review copy. Generally speaking, these are cases where I'm interested in the book, but only marginally so, making it unlikely that I'd go buy a copy, but I do want to know about it as background, context, or counterpoint for the original source that brought it to my attention. Unfortunately, this also occasionally results in my not having all that much to say about a book when I get around to reviewing it, and that seems to be the case with Bruce Schneier's Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive, which was very kindly provided to me by the good folks over at Wiley.

This is, of course, not to say that this is an uninteresting book, but it is in a niche (Sociology) which has never much grabbed me, and when I sat down to produce this review I was having a hard time bringing to mind what exactly it had been about. Now, part of this comes from my schedule over the past 3 months (I finished reading this 11 weeks ago) which, until just recently, was taken up with a project that was leaving little “free time” in my days. I realize that this is significantly “unfair” to the book and the author (I do recall that I was impressed with some of the themes in this), but that's the way it is. So please excuse any vagueness here, which is no doubt more due to my recall than to the book itself.

Liars and Outliers has a fairly straight-forward presentation arc, starting with the natural world and moving into the evolution of human society in the first part, “The Science of Trust”, of the book. Here basic groundwork is laid in predator/prey relationships, and “The Red Queen Effect” which addresses population balances and adaptations in those. As humanity emerged from the crowd of earlier hominid species, our intelligence seems to have been the advantage-giving adaptation, although as noted here there appears to be a link between intelligence and violence: “The more murderous a species is, the greater the selective benefit of intelligence; smarter people are more likely to survive their human adversaries.” … with data suggesting that as many as 25% of prehistoric males died from warfare.

Obviously, this is an awfully high percentage to maintain for a slowly-maturing, low birth rate, species, which led to the development of assorted interaction strategies. Here the terms used are “cooperate” or “defect”, which play into assorted “game theory” scenarios such as hawk/dove, which show that it's a matter of degree on every level, and that there are likely to always be “defectors” from the social norm, and the question is at what level can this be best tolerated. Among the coping strategies arise altruism and reciprocity, but these, except where explicitly dictated by the group, tend towards paleolithic patterns:
... We're evolved for the trust problems endemic to living in small family groups in the East African Highlands in 100,000 BC. It's 21st century New York City that gives us problems. … Our brains are sufficiently neuroplastic that we can adapt to today's world, but vestiges of our evolutionary past remain. These cognitive biases affect how we respond to fear, how we perceive risks …, and how we weigh short-term versus long-term costs and benefits.
Schneier references some of Dunbar's work (beyond his famed “number”), on group size and “emotional distance”, from the 12-20 person “clique” or “sympathy group”, to the 30-50 person “camp”, to the well known 150 person “band” (our basic “Rolodex” of known persons), to the 500 person “megaband” and on up to 1,500 person “tribe” that Dunbar suggests is the maximum number of faces that we can recognize.

With the onset of agriculture, the small manageable groups could no longer just move on if crowded, and so institutions arose to add another level of social pressures to the “moral” and “reputational” controls of smaller groups. The second part of the book, “A Model of Trust” addresses Societal, Moral, Reputational, and Institutional pressures, along with “Security Systems”, discussed via various “societal dilemma” examples, mostly based on game theory.
Morality is a complex concept, and the subject of thousands of years' worth of philosophical and theological debate. Although the word “moral” often refers to an individual's values – with “moral” meaning “good,” and “immoral” meaning “bad” - I am using the term “morals” here very generally, to mean any innate or cultural guidelines that inform a people's decision-making processes as they evaluate potential trade-offs. These encompass conscious and unconscious processes, explicit rules and gut feelings, deliberate thoughts, and automatic reactions. These also encompass internal reward mechanisms, for both cooperation and defection. … Belief that voting in the right thing to do, and that murdering someone is wrong, are examples of moral pressure … Natural selection has modified our brains so that trust, altruism, and cooperation feel good, but – as we all know – that doesn't mean we're always trustworthy, altruistic, and cooperative.
The third part of the book addresses “The Real World”, looking at Competing Interests, Organizations, Corporations, and Institutions. As you might expect, this is full of real-life cases, of which most deal with commerce, handling crime, etc. Of course, in society, nothing is every particularly free standing, here's an example where government, no doubt trying to reduce risks, actually increases risks when they meddle in commerce:
Any company that is too big to fail – that the government will bail out rather than let fail – is the beneficiary of a free insurance policy underwritten by taxpayers. So while a normal-sized company would evaluate both the costs and benefits of defecting, a too-big-to-fail company knows that someone else will pick up the costs. This is a moral hazard that radically changes the risk trade-off and limits the effectiveness of institutional pressure.
This has obviously been shown in both Wall Street and Detroit in the past decade, and I'm pretty sure that government hasn't learned anything from the chaos.

The final part of the book is “Conclusions”, with “How Societal Pressures Fail”, “Technological Advances”, and a look at “The Future”.
The lesson of this book isn't that defectors will inevitably ruin everything for everyone, but that we need to manage societal pressures to ensure they don't. We've seen how our prehistoric toolbox of social pressures – moral and relational systems – does that on a small scale, how institutions enhance that on a larger scale, and how technology helps all three systems scale even more. … The interplay of all the feedback loops means that both the scope of defection and the scope of defection society is willing to tolerate are constantly moving targets. There is no “getting it right”; this process never ends.
Liars and Outliers just came out earlier this year, so it should be available in the brick & mortar book vendors … the on-line guys, however, have it for more than a third off. There's lots of fascinating stuff in this (I've really just hit the broad strokes here, there was tons of detail in terms of groups, populations, theories, etc. that I didn't every try to convey), but it's in a reasonably narrow band, and if you're interested in the subject of trust in an over-all cultural context, this would be a great book for you, but (in the words of Dennis Miller) “your mileage may vary” depending on your focus.

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Tags: book review
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