Liars and Outliers

I’m not going to lie, I struggled with this book a little at the beginning.  Not because it isn’t well written (it is).  And not because the subject matter wasn’t relevant or fascinating (it was).  I struggled because Bruce Schneier’s Liars and Outliers was completely new territory for me.  This is a book about societal pressures; about what makes us obey the law (or break it), stay monogamous (or cheat on our spouses) and lie on our taxes.

Liars and Outliers really is a fascinating book, it’s just that there was – for me – a steep learning curve to the concepts.  And so, in true Actionable fashion, I’m going to attempt to distill some of the fundamentals… in two pages or less.  Here we go.

Golden Egg

Rebels with a Cause

“No matter how much societal pressure you deploy, there will be defectors.”

Liars and Outliers, page 245

The simplified gist of Liars and Outliers is that within society, there are rules.  Most people will follow those rules (cooperators) and some won’t (defectors).   As a society, we’re better off when we follow the rules.  As individuals, it’s often in our short-term self-interest to “defect”.   Stealing your neighbor’s car, for example, is faster and easier than earning the money to buy your own.  And yet we trust that – despite it actually being extremely easy to steal a car – our cars are relatively safe.  Trust.  That’s really the crux of any society, argues Schneier.  We trust the people we know, and trust that those we don’t know will (for the most part) follow the systems we have in place.  More on that later.

Most interesting in Schneier’s text was the irrefutable proof that in any society (society defined as “any group of people with a loose common interest” page 10), you will encounter some level of defection; those who refuse to follow the rules set by society.  It is statistically impossible to remove all defection from any group of individuals.

The second most interesting point in the book (in my humble opinion) was the reminder that defection is not, by default, bad.  It’s simply a break from the norm.  Those who pushed for the abolishment of slavery were defectors.  So was Nelson Mandella.  Nazi soldiers were defectors from the global community, but cooperators to the society that was Nazi Germany.  And this is where things start to get interesting.  As Schneier beautifully illustrates towards the back of the book, it is near impossible to look at the reasons for someone’s cooperation or defection through a simple lens of “good” or “bad” because it all depends on the context of the “society” we’re defining.  And, as we’ll explore in GEM #2, we often belong to many, many “societies” at once… often with conflicting values or other motivations.

But, before we get to that, let’s look at the four main societal pressures that exist in all circumstances…

GEM # 1

Connect Four

“[E]ffective societal pressure usually involves all four categories, though not necessarily in equal measure.  Considering all four will indicate how resources might be most effectively spent.”

Liars and Outliers, page 240

As Schneier defines, there are, at any given time, four sets of societal pressures influencing our decisions on whether to cooperate or defect with a given norm.

Moral Pressure.  This pressure comes from inside.  It feels “bad” to steal, and “good” to return someone’s wallet.

Reputational Pressure.  This is all about how people perceive our actions.  As the name suggests, we engage in certain behaviours because of the impact it can have on our reputation.  We care what people think about us.

Institutional Pressure.  These are the rules or laws that are set out for us.  Break those laws, and there are consequences.  This is true whether the laws are set by the government, our employer or a religious group we belong to.

Security Systems. The moat around a castle is a security system.  So is the Alarm system sticker you have on your window (even though you don’t have the system itself).  Security Systems are designed to induce cooperation, or deter defection.

All four of these societal pressures influence our actions, to some degree or another.  As Schneier suggest in the quote above, you really need to have all four in action to be effective in creating a certain behaviour in your “society”.  As a business manager whose not necessarily getting the behaviour you want from your team, it’s worth running through the list and seeing where you might be falling short.  Are you tapping into all four of the societal pressures?

GEM # 2

David beats Goliath

“In general, it takes more societal pressure to get someone to defect from a smaller group interest in favor of a larger group interest than it does to get someone to do the reverse. “

Liars and Outliers, page 152

So, here’s my favourite actionable idea from the book – being the “little guy” can actually be an advantage at getting people to support your idea or vision.

We all belong to a number of “societies” at any given time.  Our family, our company, the division within that company, our social circle, etc., etc.   There is a very good chance that within these groups, there are at least a couple conflicting pressures.


Your company touts “Work/Life Balance” as an important part of their culture, and back it up with half-day Fridays in the summer.  Your particular workgroup, however, is comprised of career driven individuals who pride themselves on being the last ones to leave the office.  We call this a “Societal Dilemma”; cooperating with one society automatically means defecting from another.  (Incidentally, Alex Lowy has a terrific book on “Dilemmas” called No Problem, which we summarized here).

So what do you do?

Research has shown that we are far more likely to cooperate with the smaller society (in this case, your work group) than with the larger society.  The stronger relationships we have with members of smaller societies enhance the impact of Reputational Pressure that we discussed in GEM #1.

Let’s add another level.  Your friends are all going to the beach in the afternoon.  Or your spouse has asked you to take the afternoon off to spend with him or her.  Now what do you do?

As we can see, our choices to cooperate or defect are influenced by factors far beyond a binary.


Liars and Outliers is one of those books you need to devour in a few sittings, pen and paper in hand.  You need to chew on it a bit, as the concepts are meaty and – for most of us – new territory.  But the bottom line is that this stuff is important.  As our world “grows smaller” through technology, but grows larger as our population count climbs, the societal pressures we face will continue to expand and shift.  The security systems we build to encourage certain behaviours will become increasingly complex, while defectors will continue to create ways to circumvent the system.  Some will defect for good.  Others will defect for evil.  The very judgement of which relies entirely on the society(s) to which you belong.

If you’re looking for an education, pick up Schneier’s Liars and Outliers.  It’s a fascinating read.

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Chris Taylor

ABOUT Chris Taylor

Founder of Actionable Books, Chris Taylor is a writer, entrepreneur and speaker. He spends his daylight hours helping consultants and employees alike find meaning in their work and discover rich team relationships through his company, Actionablebooks...
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