Bruce Schneier: Enabling the Trust That Society Needs to Thrive By

“Trust is the expectation that arises within a community of regular, honest, and cooperative behavior, based on commonly shared norms, on the part of other members of that community.”
— Francis Fukuyama


Our society is largely based on trust. In fact, it is so ubiquitous we suspect you don’t normally notice it’s influence; for most of us, it is largely habitual.

Trust has evolved as our interactions and influence have become more entwined over time, and the complexity of society has increased. It’s not just our social interactions that have adapted over the years; our tools and technology have also changed dramatically.

This backdrop makes for a fascinating discussion by security technologist Bruce Schneier in his book Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust That Society Needs to Thrive By. The book outlines how society establishes and maintains trust and tackles some core concepts related to trust from the past, present, and future.


Why is trust such an important aspect of our society? Part of it is because of the sheer complexity of how our species is linked and interacts.

All complex ecosystems, whether they are biological ecosystems like the human body, natural ecosystems like a rainforest, social ecosystems like an open-air market, or socio-technical ecosystems like the global financial 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.

To get a better idea of the sheer breadth and depth of this, take a moment to think about situations in your day to day where you choose (consciously or unconsciously) to trust. In the act of driving you are trusting: your fellow drivers, your car manufacturer, the gas station, and your mechanic. When eating in a restaurant you are trusting: your waiter/waitress, the cooks preparing the food, and the farmers who provided the raw ingredients.

We have learned through experience that we can trust somewhat implicitly in these situations, it is rare that someone breaks our trust in the above examples but it does happen.

…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.

Or… a driver that passes you while texting and a restaurateur violating food health and safety codes to save money. These parasites are good examples of failures of trust. And what they all have in common is a conflict between the interests of society as a whole and the interests of specific individuals or a small group.

This conflict is perfectly normal. You will never have a state where absolutely everyone agrees, and this is a good thing. For example, someone might break the trust for what they believe to be moral reasons, not for selfish or petty reasons. History shows us that those who defy the group norm can even become the catalysts for dramatic, and much needed, social change.

Compliance isn’t always good, and defection isn’t always bad. Sometimes the group norm doesn’t deserve to be followed, and certain kinds of progress and innovation require violating trust. In a police state, everybody is compliant but no one trusts anybody. A too-compliant society is a stagnant society, and defection contains the seeds of social change.

On a micro level everyone defects sometimes. We are as complex as the society in which we live. We will agree with some societal norms and therefore cooperate in those moments, but at other times we may not agree and could defect. This is situational as well, we react differently when we are in desperate situations. We would all steal food if we had a starving family at home. (Or maybe worse, in the case of a truly awful situation.) We are far less likely to defect when all our needs are cared for.

Schneier argues it’s the scope of the defection that we should be worried about.

What we’re concerned with is the overall scope of defection. I mean this term to be general, comprising the number of defectors, the rate of their defection, the frequency of their defection, and the intensity (the amount of damage) of their defection.

The scope of defection is important because the level of cooperation/trust in a society is often indicative of health. Sociologist Barbara Misztal identified three critical functions performed by trust:

1. It makes social life more predictable,
2. It creates a sense of community, and
3. It makes it easier for people to work together.

If the rate of defection is too high then these critical functions are not being met. (As Charlie Munger likes to say, the highest form a civilization can reach is a seamless web of deserving trust.)

Since a healthy, thriving society requires a certain level of trust, we can attempt to nudge possible defectors into complying with the societal norms. The dilemma occurs when an individual has to make a choice between the group interest and their personal competing interest. The idea is that we can add societal pressure that can induce cooperation over selfishness in these types of situations.

In the book Schneier outlines four basic categories of societal pressure:

Moral pressure — A lot of societal pressure comes from inside our own heads. Most of us don’t steal, and it’s not because there are armed guards and alarms protecting piles of stuff. We won’t steal because we believe it’s wrong, or we’ll feel guilty if we do, or we want to follow the rules.

Reputation pressure — A wholly different, and much stronger, type of pressure comes from how others respond to our actions. Reputational pressure can be very powerful; both individuals and organizations feel a lot of pressure to follow the group norms because they don’t want a bad reputation.

Institutional pressure — Institutions have rules and laws. These are norms that are codified, and whose enactment and enforcement is generally delegated. Institutional pressure induces people to behave according to the group norm by imposing sanctions on those who don’t, and occasionally by rewarding those who do.

Security systems — Security systems are another form of societal pressure. This includes any security mechanism designed to induce cooperation, prevent defection, induce trust, and compel compliance. It includes things that work to prevent defectors, like door locks and tall fences; things that interdict defectors, like alarm systems and guards; things that only work after the fact, like forensic and audit systems; and mitigation systems that help the victim recover faster and care less that the defection occurred.

The book goes on to explain these concepts in greater detail as well as taking a look back at the evolution of cooperation, trust, and security.

Schneier also tackles issues like the influence of technology and what the future will bring. In all, Liars and Outliers is a fascinating look at how society enforces, evokes and elicits trustworthiness and compliance, as well as an interesting look at the role of the defector as either a catalyst for social change or the creator of risk in a healthy society.