Bruce Schneier’s public lecture: Liars and Outliers 2. Societal pressures

In this part, Bruce Schneier talks about methods used by society to induce natural cooperation and minimize the number of defectors to a controllable level.

Reducing the number of defectors induces trust Now, most of us realize that it’s our long-term interest not to succumb to our short-term interest and not to steal, or not to pay our taxes, or not to be a greedy tapeworm. But not everyone acts that way, and that’s why we need security. Security is how we keep the number of defectors down to an acceptable minimum, it’s how we induce cooperation, which induces trustworthiness, which, in turn, induces trust. This is the mechanism by which society functions in the face of uncooperative parasites.

So, how does this mechanism work? And that’s really what I’m writing about, because, I think, that’s where it gets interesting. The term I use to describe the measures by which we as society induce cooperation is called ‘societal pressures’ and I like the term because it is a pressure, it’s an inducement, it’s a way not to eliminate defectors, but to minimize them, to keep them down to a manageable level. We are never going to reduce stealing in our society to zero, but it has to be low enough that we all can basically ignore the problem, that we can basically live in a high-trust society, even though there is stealing.

Societal pressures:

– Morals

– Reputation

– Institutional pressures

– Security systems

And I have 4 different types of societal pressures that I postulate.

1 The first one is morals, and by the term ‘morals’ I mean something very general, I mean basically anything that comes from inside your head that induces you to cooperate and not defect. And most of us don’t steal not because we’ll get arrested, but because we believe stealing is wrong, and we act on that belief. And there’s a lot of really good research that’s been done recently in neuroscience on the brain science of morality, and it turns out we do have some innate biological morals, notions of fairness, notions of reciprocity, care, hierarchy.

And these things can be seen in all societies, actually you can even see them in other primates, you can see other basic aspects of human morality in, actually, some other mammals as well. And so a lot of societal pressure comes from inside our own heads, a lot of cooperation comes from within us. There’s part of it that’s innate, part of it that’s cultural, a lot of it is taught by society about what it means to be a moral member of society, and that’s changed over the centuries – what the social norms are that we should cooperate in, really different now than in a slave-holding society, and they will be different hundreds of years from now. That’s the first, morals.

2 The second is what I call ‘reputation’. In this, again, I mean something very general. By reputation I mean any societal pressure that’s based on what other people do and think. There’s quite a lot of compliance cooperation that we do because we want to be seen by others as a cooperative member of society, as a trusted individual. We, as a social species, rightfully so, put a very high value into what others think about us, and we react to others, we praise for good behavior, we snub for bad behavior, the extreme case of snubbing is ostracism which, in primitive societies, is basically fatal, because as a social species we survive together.

And we do a lot of this today. I mean, if a friend steals my sweater, I’m not going to call the police, I’m just not going to invite him over anymore. I will make decisions based on his reputation. Reputation is extremely important to us, there are a lot of great psychological studies on how much people value reputation, what others think, there’s a good theory that language developed as a mechanism for managing reputation. Now, we’re not the only species that uses reputation, lots of other primates will watch each other and make decisions based on what they know about other primates, I mean other people of their species. We are the only species that can transfer reputation information. I can tell you about him, and no one else can do that, it is a fundamental thing language does, it allows us to transfer reputation information.

Picture of eyes on coffee machine makes people pay more diligently

Picture of eyes on coffee machine makes people pay more diligently

So I can give you one experiment which shows the value of reputation, or it shows how sensitive we are to being watched. This is done in a psychology lab: in the academic department in the university there’s a coffee machine with an honesty box – you get a cup of coffee and you drop a quarter in the box, we’ve all seen these machines. What the researcher found is when he put a photograph of a pair of eyes next to the box – it drastically increased the percentage of people who paid for their coffee. So I mean, even being primed that you might be watched makes people more honest. That’s a really interesting result.

These two societal pressures, morals and reputation, are very old. They are as old as human society. A gossip, the traditional definition of gossip, information about other people, is how we transfer reputation information. And this is, basically, our primitive societal security toolkit. And it works for small societies, works for informal societies, it’s how you and your friends manage trust, it’s how you and your family manages trust, it’s basically how trust is managed in informal groups, or even within companies, within departments. But it doesn’t scale very well, so we invented two more types of societal pressure, we invented laws, and then we use technologies.

3 So laws I call ‘institutional pressures’ because it’s not just legal entities, it’s any formal institution. Any formal institution establishes some sort of formal rules. I mean, think about what these rules are, they are societal norms that are codified, like ‘stealing is illegal’ – we went from ‘stealing is wrong’, which is morals, to ‘if you steal, other people will treat you badly’, to ‘stealing is illegal and there’s a formal punishment process’. We as society delegate some subset of us to enforce the laws, to enforce those social norms. And that’s really where laws came from, they impose formal sanctions.

4 And the 4th mechanism is our security systems. And a security system is basically a mechanism that induces cooperation, prevents defection, induces trust, compels compliance; so you are going to get a door lock, or a tall fence, burglar alarm, guards, forensic and auditing systems, mitigation recovery systems – so a lot here, some of them work before the fact, some after the fact, some during, and they all work together.

Society postulates that stealing is wrong Go back to stealing. Most of us don’t steal because we know it’s wrong; the rest of us don’t steal because of what other people will think; the rest of us don’t steal because it’s illegal and we’ll get trouble, we’ll get arrested; and for the few people that none of those 3 things have deterred, we lock our doors. We can’t do just one, you have to do all of them, to different degrees, depending on the issue. But what I want you all to go away with is that, as technologist, I think our security toolbox has been woefully inadequate, that we focus quite a lot on the technological systems and very little on the other systems. And it’s important that they all work together.

So think of this as an individual, I mean, there’s a person who is going to make some cooperative defect decision: “Should I steal or should I not?” He’s going to weigh the costs and benefits. These societal pressures are ways for society to put its finger on the scales, for us to change the equation that the person is going to make, it changes the evaluation.

And of course, this depends on context, because a lot of these things are subjective, people will value things in different ways, and that’s why we have defectors even though we have all of these things. We as society use these pressures to find some optimal balance between cooperating and defecting, because more security isn’t always better. If we have too much societal pressure, it gets too expensive. If we have too little societal pressure, it’s too damaging. There are some sweet spots, there’s some murder rate in New Zealand, and it’s not zero. It’s very small, it’s small enough that, you know, pretty much all of us don’t worry about it. But getting it to zero is too expensive. And society has a natural barometer here. If the murder rate gets too high, people start saying: “We need to spend more money on police.” If the murder rate gets too low, people start saying: “Why are we spending lots of money on police? We have other problems we need to solve.”

And depending what the system is, we have a natural level. And that’s also cultural, that’s changed over the centuries, over the millennia. That’s really our tolerance for risk: how much crime in society is enough, how much tax evasion is okay. We’d like it to be zero, but we’ll never get there, because that’s too expensive.

And what societal pressures do is allow society to scale, and scales are a really important concept here. A lot of those primitive systems were good enough for small communities, good enough for primitive societies, good enough for informal ad hoc communities today. But larger communities require more societal pressures, more formalism.

Today we have global systems that need some sort of global laws, or global rules, and global security technologies, and, in some cases, global moralism.

So I think this way of looking at society has some pretty broad explanatory powers, that there’s value in looking at societal issues through this lens. In the book I talk about terrorism, the 2008 global financial crisis, organized crime, Internet crime – sort of a lot of different issues. And you quickly realize that it all gets very complicated very quickly. And the various pressures are interrelated, you can’t make a simple formula of what the right thing to do is, that it’s very situational both who society is, and what the defectors and cooperators are.

Read previous: Bruce Schneier’s public lecture: Liars and Outliers
Read next: Bruce Schneier’s public lecture: Liars and Outliers 3. Scaling of Societal Pressures

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